Freedom versus Voting

by Benjamin Studebaker

Often times freedom is viewed as good in itself. Why is it good to allow freedom of speech, freedom of expression, assembly, religion, autonomous decision making, that whole boatload of fun stuff? Generally the liberal response is to just assert that freedom is itself good for no other reason than it just is. The argument for freedom is too often made on the basis of self-evidence than on any sort of consequentialist grounds. We all believe freedom to be a good thing because we have all been brought up socially to believe that this is the case from childhood. Don’t mistake my aim–I am not going to claim that freedom is not a good thing. I am, however, going to claim that there is an external source from which the goodness of freedom derives, and that this external source provides some separation between voting and freedom that begins to show how we might have the latter without the former.

It is often pointed out that free societies tend to do better than ones which are not free. This is true–but what proponents of this belief often ignore is that it implies that there must be some connection between the freedom and the given society’s performance. If say, communism or fascism provided better for people’s standard of living than free societies, this blog would be in German or Russian, and, more importantly, we would probably be enthusiastic communists or fascists. The problem with communism and fascism is that they don’t work–they lead to poorer living standards. So by what mechanism does freedom improve a people’s living standards?

The most sensible mechanism, and the one most often pointed to, is innovation. Free societies permit and encourage new ideas and new ways of doing things, which drives progress and development, both intellectually and technologically. These developments feed into improving living standards. It follows that the reason we maintain a free society, rather than a communist or fascist one, is that we have found that, over time, free societies are more innovative, encourage higher living standards, and are consequently more pleasant to live in. It’s not about the fact that you can say whatever you want, it’s about the fact that, if everyone can, we are likely to get a wider spectrum of ideas such that we are more likely to generate decent ones. The cost, of course, is that many of the ideas free societies generate are useless and without value, and that many people use their freedom for purposes some of us undoubtedly see as questionable, but we permit these behaviours because the more you permit, the wider the scope for innovation. As a result, liberals only disallow behaviours when they conflict with John Stuart Mill’s harm principle–i.e., they cause some harm to someone else or to wider society.

Imagine a world in which freedom and innovation were completely disconnected, where our society would progress just as fast if people were permitted the various liberties as they would if they were not. Recent history is a process by which less free societies have failed in Darwinian competition with more free societies and consequently disappeared. Without this connection between freedom and prosperity, we would have a much larger number of less free states. The world as it exists today is only explicable because freedom connects with prosperity. As a result, freedom is not good in itself–it is good because of the prosperity that it creates.

This creates a certain responsibility for each of our freedoms. The various freedoms must justify themselves in terms of the prosperity they generate against other concerns. For instance, we permit people to say whatever they want because we know this is innovative and tends toward prosperity. We do not limit even forms of speech widely thought of as negative because the effort of intellectually defeating them is a growth process for other, better ideas, and because there is a fundamental uncertainty about what a good or a bad idea is–if you start banning ideas, it is arbitrary, and impossible to logically limit, because one man’s trash is another’s treasure.

However, what if suddenly things were to change radically? What if suddenly, our free speech was not bringing about a pro-innovative, pro-intellectualism process of growth, but was instead leading to a great many people believing in fascism? If there were a serious risk of a fascist takeover on account of free speech or free assembly, most reasonable people would oppose those freedoms. Thankfully these freedoms remain on balance quite socially beneficial. However, there is one freedom that I contend no longer serves a prosperity-promotion function. That freedom is the freedom to vote.

The intellectual debates that go on in free societies remain tremendously beneficial to us all, but they are subverted when voters ignore them or respond to propaganda instead of argument. Most of our modern election cycles consist of just propaganda, with very little policy actually being described in intellectual terms, let alone justified in terms of political or economic theory. No one really knows what information is true and what information is false any more, despite this being the “information age”. As a result, poorly informed voters are providing us with mediocre, poor performing government, and it is only likely to get worse going forward. This leaves us with three alternatives:

  • We can reduce the freedom of speech
  • We can eliminate voting
  • We can allow our living standards to decline

The third option is untenable and grossly immoral and, what’s more, it leads to the loss both of the vote and of all freedom–democratic states that cannot produce prosperity eventually collapse in favour of dictatorial regimes (see Germany, 1932). The former would make an effort to ban all speech, all propaganda, that has anything in it considered “untrue”. Some sort of “truth panel” would evaluate political advertisements and speeches to ensure veracity, throwing people in prison for violating their mandates and edicts. I think that is a disgusting, illiberal solution, with obvious large risks of corruption. Surely it would be better to instead put government into the hands of people who are academically and intellectually well-read, who are excellent at discerning between fact and fiction, and in making political judgements grounded in sound theoretical analysis? Surely it would be better to eliminate the vote, which, after all, does not really count for very much, than risk the important freedoms that drive our growth and innovation and make our society prosperous? While freedom of speech allows for quite a lot of propaganda, it also allows for scientists and philosophers to challenge one another’s thinking, for people to write up new, zany ideas, ideas like sophiarchy, which, despite flying in the face of what is commonly considered politically acceptable, could provide solutions to our problems? I am a deeply anti-democratic person, but I am pro-freedom. Those two positions are totally compatible, and it is time we stop damaging our societal prosperity, risking, in the long run, the survival of our freedoms, in order to maintain our voting fetish.