Anticipating the Unintended #63: Dispelling The Many Myths of Our (Mythical) Readers Part #3

This newsletter is really a public policy thought-letter. While excellent newsletters on specific themes within public policy already exist, this thought-letter is about frameworks, mental models, and key ideas that will hopefully help you think about any public policy problem in imaginative ways. It seeks to answer just one question: how do I think about a particular public policy problem/solution?

Welcome to the mid-week edition in which we write essays on a public policy theme. The usual public policy review comes out on weekends.


The mails from our readers are piling up. Their questions are getting deeper. It is time for Prof. Arthananda Ilyich Smith-Hayek (AISH) to come to the aid of the party.

(Surabhi — which made viewer letters cool in India. Source: Twitter. User: Film History Pics)

Q1. Dear Prof, I’m thoroughly confused by this free speech business. In India, those who usually stand by free speech forced a publishing house to drop a book. The same people accuse news outlets of one-sided coverage. The Op-Ed page editor of a US newspaper is forced to resign because he published an opinion piece that didn’t sit well with his colleagues. Another columnist of the newspaper quit because she was being targeted by her colleagues for her views that run counter to theirs. The same newspaper is accused for aiming for a ‘balance’ and not countering right-wing populism enough. A bunch of intellectuals who wrote a letter supporting free speech were taken apart by left-wing. How should I make sense of these?

                                                                                                                                 Yours etc                                                                                                                              Aazad Bolkar

Prof. AISH:

Dear Aazad, I share your bewilderment. Everyone believes free speech is the foundation of our liberty. It follows we all have the right to offend. But increasingly we don’t want others to offend us. My right to free speech is precious but yours is problematic. Let us look at how and why we have arrived here.

Before we begin, I need to make it clear we are talking about free speech limitation in the context of the state or the government here. That is to what extent should the state intervene on freedom of speech and expression. This is different from the conduct of private people or entities. A publishing house is free to drop an author or a book if it deems fit. Some other publishing house will pick it up. Like it happened in the case you mentioned. Similarly, you are free to not read a book that offends you. There are many other books in this world. Our focus here is whether the state should get involved in any of these.

Any discussion on free speech starts with John Stuart Mill’s classic text On Liberty where he makes a compelling moral argument for free speech and its benefits to the society. Mill argues:

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Mill offers three reasons to support this argument:

  1. Human beings aren’t infallible. We can or should never be certain about our truths.
  2. There’s a possibility that the contrary opinion of that one person was the truth. The society will be better off hearing that truth. Socrates and Galileo were holding blasphemous opinions during their time that were true. Silencing them didn’t help society.
  3. Even if the contrary opinion is false, it gives another kind of benefit to society. The airing of that view allows others to refute it. This strengthens the truth.

However, Mill understands this freedom can’t be absolute. This is where the problem starts. Mill puts a condition on free speech:

“..the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

This is called the harm principle. In other words, your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. So, the question is what kinds of speech can cause harm? Mill considered this to be a narrow sliver restricted to any speech inciting a mob to harm someone. He writes:

“An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.”

For Mill, there’s a context to free speech as seen above. If it leads to harm to others, there is a reason to curtail it. The problem is the definition of the harm threshold and the context over the years have changed.

Three kinds of exceptions have arisen:

  1. Hate speech: any speech that targets a specific group and threatens to undermine the social structure should be limited. This is how the first-ever amendment to the Indian constitution came about. A series of cases on freedom of speech were upheld by different courts allowing organisations as diverse as RSS and its publication, Organiser, and Crossroads, published by the militant Communists, to express their views freely. Nehru and his cabinet amended Article 19 and included ‘reasonable restrictions’ to freedom of speech and expression in the interests of the state, public order, decency or morality.
  2. Blasphemy: any speech that hurts the core religious beliefs of a group that could incite them to violent acts have been placed under restriction. There is no clear line here. Some groups tend to be more sensitive and others have started mimicking them. States have followed with laws placing restrictions on such expressions against religions.
  3. Psychological harm: Over time the notion of psychological harm caused by a speech or by words have crept into the definition of harm. The libel laws of UK where the truth is secondary to the psychological harm (loss of reputation) of a person was an early example of this. The current trend in college campuses in western democracies where certain topics have been taken off the curriculum because of complaints by students of being ‘triggered’ is a manifestation of this.

The rapid spread of social media and smartphones have compounded the problem of context. These platforms programmatically nudge people to inhabit echo chambers that reinforce their ‘truths’. This makes them less sensitive to any contrary opinion. The radically networked groups find it easy to turn into online or offline mobs to go after their opponents. The speed of information flow in these networks is faster than the response time of the state leading to real harm in the society. Also, the majoritarian trends seen in many democracies in the past few years has exacerbated this problem. The definition of the harm threshold is now held to ransom by the majority.

So, where does that leave us? First, we don’t like absolutism of any kind. But considering how far we have slipped on the definition of the harm principle, we will bat for free speech absolutism today without any kind of intervention by the state. Any nuance of harm can be accepted only after we start with the axiomatic belief that free speech is a virtue under all circumstances. Else, it will be a series of compromises all the way. Second, the anxieties about social media platforms, fake narratives and their harms are valid. But to choose what’s fake or real and to let the state, which is an interested party in this debate, decide this is fraught with more risks. The counter to them must emerge from challenging them with truth and increasing public awareness. Censoring will cut both ways. Third, we underestimate the long-term preference of society for decency, etiquette, and truth. We haven’t legislated to ensure we don’t abuse our neighbours in daily conversations or behave rudely in public. For instance, there’s no law prohibiting the usage of the ‘n’ word in the US. But no decent person uses it. We maintain a decorum because most of us have an intrinsic understanding of the limits of the right to offend. Those who don’t understand this tend to fall in line over time through the social mechanism.

Free speech is under threat from both sides of the ideological spectrum. There’s the right-wing lynch mob, fake news farms and abusive trolls on one end and the easy-to-get-triggered, check your privilege, de-platforming mob on the other. This is the slippery slope we have gone down once we started broadening the definition of the harm principle. It has hurt all of us.

In our search for nuance, we have gone too far from Mill’s ideal of free speech. Dogmatic adherence to its principles is the only way of retrieving things back.


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Q2. Dear Prof, the pandemic has shown us why public goods should be made free for everyone. Otherwise, these private companies will fleece you during your time of need. Corona tests, vaccines, education, healthcare, water and all such public goods should be the right of every citizen. They should be made available for free by the government. As Dylan wrote – how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died? Why aren’t you or your students arguing in favour of this?

                                                                                                                                   Yours etc

                                                                                                                                   Janata Samanta

Prof. AISH:

I hear you, Janata. There is, indeed, some role for the government in all the example cases you cite. However, free public provision of these goods is not the solution that these situations require.

Let me explain. First, we need to tackle this problematic term “public good”. In common parlance, it is understood as a combination of the two terms. Good as in something that is desirable and Public as in there’s a case for government involvement. Seen from this angle, all things desirable — knowledge, defence, healthcare, vaccine, roads, phones — become public goods and hence they require the government to provide them and that too at zero cost. With the government providing all these goods for free, it is implied that these goods become accessible to everyone.

Now, there are several problems with this commonsensical approach as it is far away from reality. First, the government making something free does not ensure accessibility to all. Two, making something free leads to overconsumption of that good. Three, the government almost always produces things badly.

To understand these three problems, imagine a government that decides to produce and distribute mobile phones for free because they are a “public good”. Whether such a phone is accessible to everyone will depend on the availability of integrated circuits, raw materials, and technical expertise. Given that these items are scarce, there will always be long queues outside the government shops selling these phones. To increase one’s chances of getting the phone earlier, people will bribe the sarkaari shop owners selling phones. Voila! Another corruption racket has taken root.

Let’s imagine that the government manages to procure these phones somehow and there is a Phone Lokpal to prevent corruption. Still, there will be persons who will try to get many phones and start their own black market for selling these phones at a price above zero. People will pay them because they get to avoid long queues.

Even if the black market is prevented by phone police, there will be quality issues with the phone for which the government will be blamed. So the government will have to create a quality control department to regulate this.

We’ve just created new government machinery. We still haven’t ensured that the public good is accessible to everyone. Contrast that with the reality that India has 1.38billion phone numbers without the government doing any of this. Sure, some have iPhones and many others have feature phones but all this happened just by enabling a competitive market where many sellers compete with each other.

Now you might be thinking – phones are different. Vaccines are different. Exactly. So we need a more concrete definition of what constitutes a public good. Economists have tried that. Economists use a different definition for public goods — it is a good that is non-excludable (ie preventing anyone from consuming the good is very expensive) or non-rival (ie once provided, the act of consumption of the good by one person doesn’t affect the ability of another person to consume the same good). Because such goods are non-excludable, no company can charge for them and make a profit out of it. Because they are non-rival, no consumer is willing to pay for they can free-ride on someone else. All in all, the market under-provides for such goods so you need the visible hand of the government to provide for them. This is what all economics textbooks will tell you.

Seen from this definition, the list of public goods becomes too small. In fact, most of the goods that qualify as public goods here are quite abstract. Think defence, public health, roads, vaccines. At a theoretical level, they are non-excludable and non-rival. But they are often private goods in practice (ie people can be excluded from getting them easily and my consumption means you have less of it). For example, ‘law and order’ is a public good but the access to courts is rivalrous as India’s long list of pending cases indicates. While national defence is public good, deployment of conventional forces is rivalrous — more forces aimed at Pakistan implies less forces aimed at China. While health is a public good, the number of hospital beds are rivalrous.

So we have hit an impasse. The commonsensical definition of public goods is too wide and subjective to convey any meaning while the economics definition hardly ever exists in reality.

So what do we do?

There’s an easier answer to the public good confusion — externalities. An externality exists if the production and consumption of a good or service affects a third party not directly involved in the market transaction. If its a positive externality, it benefits the third person and if it’s a negative externality it harms a third party. Producers and consumers can undervalue goods with positive externalities leading to underproduction of such goods as they don’t take into account the benefit to the third party. The reverse happens with negative externalities.

A public good is just a special case of an externality. If a public good is provided for one person, the benefit that everyone else gets can be thought of as a positive externality.

Using this framework, it is easier to see why government role in education is important. Even though a school seat is rivalrous and excludable, a large number of educated people is thought to be beneficial to society at large. Thus the government should enable this change to happen. Similarly, even though a COVID-19 vaccine is a private good, you benefit just from people around you getting vaccinated. This again calls for a government role.

Interestingly, the role that government needs to play here is not that of producing the good but one of financing the consumers. So the government can allow a large competitive market of educators but it can finance education through vouchers to students. Or in the vaccination case, it can allow private and government players but give it at a subsidised price to citizens. On the other hand, a phone in my hand does not have a significant positive externality for a third party and hence it doesn’t need government intervention.

So instead of getting into the public goods quagmire, think externalities. That is a more concrete and relatable concept while discussing government role. Public goods concept has its advantages but is a pedagogical nightmare.

For more, read this paper: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/217599645.pdf

Read the full edition here.

Disclaimer: Views expressed on Anticipating the Unintended are those of the authors’ and do not represent Takshashila Institution’s recommendations.