Mill, Hoppe and Robespierre walk into a bar: free speech, freedom of association and political violence

As the political climate heats up, freedom of speech, that crown jewel of Western civilization, is increasingly under attack from left, right and centre.  This tail-chasing irony vortex of rhetoric ropes, ovens, guillotines, helicopters, gulags and upward index fingers is fun to watch online, but let’s make sure it stays there.

Libertarians have become complacent in reducing freedom of speech to a corollary of private property rights. Yes, property rights may well be a silver bullet against the “offense” conundrum (we can get along by staying separate) but the “freedom of speech” debate is not only about the offensive nonsense we may have to endure; it’s also about dangerously appealing mind poison and its peddlers.

The case against government censorship was famously advanced by John Stuart Mill:

Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right

 

Before we can agree on anything else, we must agree on the right to disagree, so we must let critics speak up, even if their critical remarks inspire others to commit crimes. Yes, we are leaving all those pesky intellectual trolls who cause mayhem with their doctrines off the hook, but that’s the price we pay for an honest political environment. I mean, I can also conceive of a tyrant who takes care of my interests better than myself, but I’ll take my chances, thank you very much. That’s “freedom of speech” in the political-theoretic sense.

Furthermore, an intellectually vibrant society should not discourage peaceful dissent, not even through legitimate means such as social and economic ostracism. Indeed, even without government censorship, unpopular opinions are often self-censored for fear of losing customers, a good job or a business partner. In the current political climate, anonymous internet forums and image-boards are becoming the speech counterpart of secret ballots. That’s   the stronger, cultural notion of “freedom of speech”.

While political-theoretic freedom of speech operates in the “top level” context of human relations, the “cultural” version is just a recipe for healthy communities and it can never override freedom of association. For instance, the freedom to form family-friendly covenants. Quoting Hoppe:

In a covenant concluded among proprietor and community tenants for the purpose of protecting their private property, no such thing as a right to free (unlimited) speech exists, not even to unlimited speech on one’s own tenant-property. One may say innumerable things and promote almost any idea under the sun, but naturally no one is permitted to advocate ideas contrary to the very purpose of the covenant of preserving and protecting private property, such as democracy and communism. There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise, in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They – the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centered lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism – will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.

 

Legend has it that Hoppe originally included “bronies” in his list of undesirables, but the reference was deleted by censors. You see, he was renting a house under a covenant which banned any and all references to bronies for any purpose whatsoever. When he was informed of this clause, he bought the house.

From a practical perspective, can a libertarian community afford unrestricted freedom of speech and conscience? Yes, it can. Wouldn’t it lose land by constant secession until nothing is left? No, because people who secede can only take with them the land they own. You can’t lose what you didn’t own in the first place.

Then why are many right-wing libertarians giving up on free speech? Because in a non-libertarian society, there’s no such guarantee. For instance, in a democratic society, your political opponents can vote themselves your land, or hit you with their tyrannical laws until you are forced to leave, so it makes perfect sense to shut them out when your team gets the upper hand. The left has used this trick countless times during the twentieth century (“see? socialism works!.. oops, scrap that, it hasn’t been tried!”) and never gave a rat’s rear end about their opponents’ freedom of speech and conscience.

In general, political persecution can be described as a form of internal conquest and land consolidation against a rival group.

In Robespierre’s words:

Social protection is due only to peaceful citizens; there are no citizens in the Republic but the republicans. The royalists, the conspirators are, in its eyes, only strangers or, rather, enemies. Is not the terrible war, which liberty sustains against tyranny, indivisible? Are not the enemies within the allies of those without? The murderers who tear our country apart internally; the intriguers who purchase the consciences of the people’s agents; the mercenary libelers subsidized to dishonor the popular cause, to kill public virtue, to stir up the fires of civil discord, and to prepare political counterrevolution by means of moral counterrevolution—are all these men less to blame or less dangerous than the tyrants whom they serve? All those who interpose their parricidal gentleness to protect the wicked from the avenging blade of national justice are like those who would throw themselves between the tyrants’ henchmen and our soldiers’ bayonets. All the outbursts of their false sensitivity seem to me only longing sighs for England and Austria.

Notice the “exclusive proposition nation” aspect of Robespierre’s war. He doesn’t say “if you like the French Revolution, you are French” (that would be the better known, “inclusive” notion of “proposition nation”, which creates its own well-known problems), he says “if you don’t like the French Revolution, you are an enemy infiltrator who doesn’t belong here”. Clever. Why share or split up the land when you can have it all?

From a libertarian perspective, the problem is not the exclusionary rule itself but to the constant act of conquest against former fellow citizens, reclassified as foreign infiltrators because of their political beliefs.

Hoppe’s family-friendly covenant is different because, well, it’s opt-in. All members know what they are getting into. Presumably there’s a monetary compensation system which makes arbitrary and unfair expulsion unlikely, and even a somewhat smaller compensation for people who want to leave but can find no buyers. The same applies to their children, who inherit their homes from them with the covenant attached to it. While conceivable in theory, a “helicopter ride” clause for crimes such as wearing a Che T-shirt or watching Almodovar movies is not very likely. And, of course, someone’s right to leave the community can’t be negated by a pact he didn’t make.

For obvious reasons, the “freedom of speech” sanctuary tends to be invoked by political minorities and quickly forgotten by those same groups when they are in a position to silence, persecute and expel others. Only America’s unique devotion to freedom of speech can explain the various tiny but vocal groups of would-be censors and persecutors. Here’s hoping it stays that way.