Freedom of Expression in the Information Age

There’s a great tension today between two fundamental human freedoms. The first is freedom of thought and expression. A free person is able think, inquire, and express themselves and remain a regular member of society. The second is freedom of association. A free person only engages in activities they consent to. These come into conflict when one person refuses to associate with another over the second person’s expression.

In theory, this is easily resolved. Transactions are so common that missing out on one is a small price to pay for maintaining freedom of association. However, this isn’t as simple as it seems. For most people, their income comes from a single source. If your employer doesn’t want to associate with you, your livelihood is at risk.

(NB: A future article will cover the specific case of social media)

As an employer, your motivations are simple enough. A large business caters to huge swaths of the population, cutting across every ideology. One of your goals is to maximize the number of people willing to do business with you. Since some people are willing to boycott businesses over the political opinions of their employees, avoiding theses customers’ ire is the correct course of action.

If employers refuse to employ individuals who publicly express views that put their profits at risk, and employment is the primary means of generating income among the population, freedom of expression is de facto limited in a very meaningful way. Public discourse is limited to things that will not invoke a boycott from intolerant political minorities.

Things did not use to be this way. Prior to the industrial revolution and the information age, several differences made freedom of expression easier than it is today. I will use America in the 1790’s as an illustrative example.

The first thing that made freedom of expression easier is that political opinions did not count for nearly as much. The government was so limited, and so less capable of exerting force, one person’s political opinions, if enacted, would not affect you very directly.

The second is that educated persons were generally self employed. With many sources of income, a few people getting angry at you might result in a dip in income, but not a 100% loss. If you did something so far out of line that you couldn’t survive, you could move to a new town and start fresh.

The third is that corporations were not what we think of today. Corporations were most often used to finance long merchant shipping runs and were dissolved once the ship had sold its cargo. Corporations existed on a short time scale and did not have much reason to care if a random sailor had the wrong opinion on the hot-button issues of the day.

The fourth is that pseudonyms were widely used and generally accepted. People used pseudonyms so that the work would be judged wholly on its merits, and readers would not be influenced by the byline. A famous example is a teenage Ben Franklin used to leave opinion articles lying around his brother’s print shop, where he was also an apprentice. Ben Franklin assumed his brother (and the public) would ignore any article written by a teenager on those grounds alone.

I would be negligent if I failed to mention that shortly thereafter, James Franklin was imprisoned and the paper shut down for spreading libel. Situations like that were a direct cause for the 1st Amendment.

Looking at the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, their newspaper articles are almost all written under pseudonyms. Although, in those cases, the pseudonyms were usually chosen to influence the reader in some way.

So here we have four factors that have helped contribute to the decline of de facto freedom of expression.

  • Increased government power and ability
  • Near universal self-employment
  • Corporations were short-term
  • Pseudonyms falling out of favor

As individuals, self-employment and pseudonyms are issues you can change at a personal level. I certainly use a pseudonym. And you can form a business working for yourself where you clients are individuals rather than corporations. Changing the amount of government power is plausible in the long run but out of reach for individuals. The change in the nature of corporations seems to be a permanent one.

Finding ways to make freedom of thought and expression as strong today as they were in 1790 is an important goal for anyone who finds the status quo wanting and should find itself into the platform of a political party in the future.

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