In a previous post I argued that Glenn Greenwald’s arguments against laws for the suppression of certain ideas cannot be effective until he establishes what makes expressing ideas different from other human activities that are regulated by law. Greenwald’s main argument, which seems generally on the mark and deserves close examination, is that regulations that bar the expression of certain ideas foreclose the possibility of certain political changes. It seems that Greenwald considers this effect as something clearly to be avoided (even at high potential short term cost) but, as is unfortunately his habit, he does not make his argument and his reasoning explicit. I previously committed to consider this argument in detail next. Before doing so, however, I want to consider a somewhat different argument mentioned by Greenwald. I therefore postpone treatment of the main argument to an upcoming post.

Greenwald’s other argument purporting to show why banning speech is not like banning other types of behavior is short-term utilitarian. Greenwald claims that “airing” ideas is “better” than suppressing them – “better”, we are given to understand, even for those who find those ideas wrong or offensive. Read the rest of this entry »


Glenn Greenwald is excoriating the hate speech laws of Canada. It turns out that an official in a Canadian university in which an American, one Ms. Coulter, has been invited to speak has sent that speaker a letter notifying her that expressing certain types of ideas while in Canada would be against the Canadian law.

As has been the case with his post dealing with the court decision regarding regulations of election campaigns, Greenwald’s argument weaves several related but distinct claims – of varying validity – into a single narrative. Unpacking the argument, I identify several claims. The first three seem almost gratuitous:

  • The official’s letter is “threatening”.
  • The official is anointing himself as the arbiter of what is and is not sufficiently “civilized discussion”.
  • For the two reasons above, the letter is “hateful” and is therefore itself a violation of the hate speech laws.

Those three claims can be easily dismissed. The letter itself is informative rather than threatening. It does not indicate that the official or anyone else in the university would try to instigate a criminal prosecution against the speaker. The official to some limited extent expresses some opinion that certain ideas are uncivilized, but so do many people, more or less convincingly, in countries with or without hate speech laws. In this particular case, the official seems to indicate that in his opinion the speech outlawed by his country’s laws is uncivilized. This is hardly outrageous, hateful, or even unusual or controversial. That is his opinion and nothing more. Whether a certain idea is illegal under Canadian law is decided on grounds that are not directly affected by that opinion.

The more substantial points are Greenwald’s arguments for the inadvisability of criminalizing certain ideas:

  • “The hubris required to believe that you can declare certain views so objectively hateful that they should be criminalized is astronomical; in so many eras, views that were most scorned by majorities ended up emerging as truth,”
  • “I’ll never understand how people want to vest in the Government the power to criminalize particular viewpoints it dislikes,”
  • “[I] will never understand the view that it’s better to try to suppress adverse beliefs than to air them,”
  • “[I] will especially never understand people’s failure to realize that endorsing this power will, one day, very likely result in their own views being criminalized when their political enemies (rather than allies) are empowered.”

And, in the comments,

  • “[If the majority can suppress certain ideas then] all opinions held by a minority could be criminalized. Who would endorse a standard like that?”

Read the rest of this entry »

Organizations: function, power

February 17, 2010

Coming, finally, to Greenwald’s point #2, I find that much of the groundwork has been laid out in my treatment of points #1, #3, and #4, so the analysis is straightforward.

Greenwald manages here to pack tightly several assertions, which are better considered separately. His first point is that

organizations are created to further the interests of people, and should thus be given powers appropriate to the task.

This point is valid. The cavalier derivation of the next point, however, as a supposed consequence is completely false:

one of those powers must be the possibility to broadcast ideas, unrestricted by the government

This represents a complete misreading of the nature of broadcasting of ideas, as discussed before. Read the rest of this entry »

This post deals with point #3 on my list of arguments made by Glen Greenwald in his articles regarding the court decision invalidating certain campaign finance regulations.

This is, on the face of it, the most specific of Greenwald’s points, although as it turns out, it does have some wide ranging implications. He begins:

What is overlooked […] is how ineffective these campaign finance laws are.  Large corporations employ teams of lawyers and lobbyists and easily circumvent these restrictions; wealthy individuals and well-funded unincorporated organizations are unlimited in what they can spend.  It’s the smaller non-profit advocacy groups whose political speech tends to be most burdened by these laws.  Campaign finance laws are a bit like gun control statutes:  actual criminals continue to possess large stockpiles of weapons, but law-abiding citizens are disarmed.

There is very little question in my mind that Greenwald is completely correct in saying that campaign finance laws are ineffectual. In a society that is built around the concept of ownership, it would be quite difficult to insulate political discourse from the effects of this institution, and the government has no interest in spending the effort in doing so, since it is populated by people who got there by being backed by wealthy organizations and people.

The rest of the argument, however, is without merit for several reasons:
Read the rest of this entry »

“Money is speech”

February 1, 2010

In point #4 of my list of Glenn Greenwald’s arguments regarding “free speech”, I quote Greenwald’s argument regarding what may be called the “money is speech” doctrine. I cannot find a concise explicit statement of this doctrine online, but I think it is fair to say that it says that

money can be used to help disseminate ideas and therefore its use in this way must be “unrestricted” in the same sense that “speech” (dissemination of ideas) is.

Greenwald’s argument at point #4 shows that indeed money can be used (or maybe to some extent must be used) to disseminate ideas. Therefore an outright ban on the use of money in disseminating a certain idea would be a very powerful way to hinder the dissemination of that idea. This is definitely true – indeed, it is a truism. The notion that money is a useful tool for disseminating ideas can be stretched much further to produce another truism: money is such a useful tool for disseminating ideas that a wealthy person or organization is at an inherent advantage in disseminating their ideas over a person or organization without access to large amounts of money. (A contradictory idea – that ideas gain support based solely on their values irrespective of the resources that are used to back them and thus ideas that are widely believed must be valuable – is also sometimes voiced by interested parties, but this idea can be safely, and usually is, dismissed.)

None of this would come as a surprise to those who argue that “money is not speech”. Indeed it is the latter, stronger statement that is the reason for their objection to the “money is speech” doctrine. The “money is not speech” claim is not the negation of the claim of usefulness of money in disseminating ideas, but to the claim that use of money should be “unrestricted”, in the same way that the mere act of speaking or writing should be “unrestricted”.

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This post is aimed at being the first part in a long-delayed “attempt to embark on” “a methodical analysis of the set of possibilities for achieving political equality”.

Part 1: Optimal decision-making, group rationality

… in which it is argued that groups, in an ideal setting, can achieve rational decisions. Group decision making constrained by practical circumstances should therefore be designed so as to produce decisions that approximate the decisions that would have been made under ideal conditions.

It is sometimes asserted that groups cannot form good policy. When such notions are expressed by the less educated, they are are attributed to the authoritarian sentiments of the unsophisticated. When such ideas are proposed by the educated, they are considered evidence of hard-headed realism. Elite speakers often mention Arrow’s “impossibility theorem” (what Arrow called the ‘General Possibility Theorem’) and claim that it “shows” that group rationality is impossible.

Read the rest of this entry »

The case of Rudolph Guiliani suggests that mass media cannot dictate to the public who to vote for. However, since it is impossible to vote for a candidate one has never heard of, mass media cannot help but determine who the public will not vote for.

Senator Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president in January 2007, yet even by by February 2006 over 40% of the people heard enough about Obama to have an opinion about him.

For comparison, a different Democratic congressmember running for the nomination, Dennis Kucinich, never managed to have more than 35% name recognition, even during the height of the primary season.

(The points marked with ‘k’ show the proportion of people recognizing Kucinich.)

Data: Newsweek, NBC and Gallup series.

As Phillip Davis writes (reprinted in the IMS Bulletin), scholarly authors are driven to publish in journals because that is the way to have their work noticed and readers read journals because these provide some measure of quality assurance. Davis is wrong, however, on multiple counts, when he concludes: “This system is not intended to be fair and democratic, but it saves the time of the reader and functions to help consensus building in science. For those who feel that this perpetuates hegemony, let them eat cake.”

The academic publishing system is intended to be fair; the current system (though better than nothing) performs poorly as a time saving tool for the reader; “consensus forming” (i.e., suppressing non-conventional thought) is not a legitimate function of a scientific communication channel; and, finally, there is no reason to dismiss people who are unhappy with the current system with “let them eat cake”: there is a better way to run the scholarly publishing system.

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The functions of mass media

December 30, 2008

When considering the form that democratic media could take, it is important to consider whether mass media – with its inherent potential for non-democratic effects – has any useful functions that are not anti-democratic. This question is akin to the question of whether government has any functions that are not oppressive. In an analogy to the anarchist position which claims that any governmental activity is necessarily oppressive, one could claim that the only functions of mass media are anti-democratic, i.e., those of allowing a privileged minority influence over the rest of the population. That position would claim that all mass media should be abolished (in the same way that the anarchists want to abolish government altogether) and people should rely exclusively on non-mass (or intimate) forms of media. In this view, the best that a democratic control structure over mass media could produce would be neutralizing those anti-democratic functions, leaving the entire organization useless.

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The term “censorship” describes the act of suppressing certain ideas by those who control some distribution channels. Despite regular attempts by interested parties to limit the term to describe very restricted or extreme cases of suppression of ideas, the term is usually, and very reasonably, understood to cover any attempt at reducing the circulation of an idea, by any person or organization. The negative view, which most of the population, as well as official ideology, take of censorship therefore encompasses any such activity. According to this view, the desirable media system is democratic – i.e., one which allows all people an equal opportunity at presenting their ideas and having them considered by others.

The implicit universal rejection of censorship notwithstanding, much of the communication patterns that dominate Western society are inherently censoring activities. The members of the elite group that influences (to varying degrees) the content of wide circulation media – publishers, broadcasters, advertisers, editors and reporters – routinely make decisions that amount to suppressing some communications, containing certain ideas, in favor of other communications, containing different ideas. Those decisions, although usually purporting to reflect only objective accepted standards, are in reality almost completely subjective. They therefore reflect the ideas and biases of the very select and atypical group of people who make them.

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