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Social media censorship: Further reflections on suppressed coronavirus disinformation

On Wednesday August 5th, Donald Trump posted a snippet of a Fox and Friends segment to his social media accounts. Discussing the important matter of school reopenings, the president said the following:

Schools should be reopened. When you look at children, children are almost—and I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease…they’ve got stronger—it’s hard to believe depending how you feel about it—much stronger immune systems than we do somehow for this and they…don’t have a problem…and I’ve seen some doctors say that they’re totally immune.

Trump goes on to cite as evidence the fact that only one person under 18 died from the virus in the state of New Jersey, which he (no less than his viewers) should know falsifies any claim of total immunity. Charitably, he likely means that children are shielded from the worst effects of the virus. Evidence: Just weeks ago, Trump made more reasonable claims that (1) children face less risk from the virus (they recover quicker) than adults and (2) that they may transmit it less readily than adults. As in the case of transmission to and from animals, the evidence concerning children’s role in transmitting the virus is still coming in. Whereas about a week ago, experts were optimistic about children’s role in transmission (believing on the basis of limited evidence that it might be lower), a recent German study has raised doubts (though has yet to pass through peer review). But regarding this risk, Trump admitted that further research was necessary and that his administration was taking this factor seriously.

Speculation about what he really means aside, the false and misleading nature of the letter of his claim (that children are immune) led Facebook and Twitter to remove the video for violating their policies around misinformation and covid-19. Were they right to do so?

In my previous post, I indicated that there was good reason to worry that this was actually the best way of promoting what might be dangerous content. Once again, I awoke to numerous headlines which repeated Trump’s claim. Thanks to the Streisand effect, people will see this claim, that children are ‘almost immune’ to coronavirus, repeated over and over again; thanks to the illusory truth effect, people may be more susceptible to believing it, even if they know it’s false.

Here, I want to emphasize a different strategic aspect of all of this. Suppose that Trump knows that the more strident claims are strictly false and that they will cause controversy. (If you watch the video closely, he indicates that he knows as much when he hedges: “I hate to use the word totally because the news will say, ‘oh, he made the word totally and he shouldn’t have used that word”.)  Might censoring it frustrate the aims of the censoring parties and ultimately serve Trump’s interests?

Perhaps. It is unprecedented for social media platforms to remove the president’s speech. Their policy, to date, has (reasonably in my view) been that, though what the president says might be false, misleading, or harmful, the people have a right to know that he’s said it (even if they should also be informed that it is misleading). But such platforms have been facing increased pressure by representatives of more traditional media, by politicians, by advertisers, and by some users to exercise a heavier hand in this regard, and to stop exempting Trump’s speech from their community standards. Trump, already so annoyed by the ways in which social media platforms have handled his content as to issue an executive order barring them from engaging in censorship, presumably knows this. The more he can get social media companies to censor him, the more he may be able to convince his base that these platforms are untrustworthy.

Supposing that it is true that a majority of users of social media platforms (including 38% of democrats) already believe that social media platforms are biased against conservatives, censoring the president’s speech in this manner might further negatively impact the reputations of these platforms (reputations which have already taken a large hit in the past year). Not only can this sort of censorship further increase polarization by leading conservatives to disengage (costing the platforms active users, and, ultimately, advertisement revenue), it may also cause people more generally to doubt social media platforms’ disclaimers about the dangerous or misleading content they choose to leave up, reducing their credibility and leaving vulnerable persons more susceptible to misinformation (though see Goldman’s Knowledge in a Social World, ch. 7). In the particular case at hand, these effects may be amplified because the censored party here is the president and it is reasonable to believe that voters have a legitimate interest in knowing what their leaders are saying, true or false, good or evil (though some evidence suggests that, with respect to offensive content in particular, many think this kind of censorship, even of the U.S. president, is desirable).

One thing that these considerations put into sharp relief is that despite the bare facts that social media companies have a right to censor and legitimate interests in censoring, there is no guarantee that they will censor well, even relative to their own goals (somewhat narrowly construed). If they are sufficiently bad at choosing which content to censor to advance their ends (was this really the most dangerous segment we’ve heard?), this establishes a weak presumption against their censorship—not as a matter of law or even of ethics, but a matter of organizational rationality.

Still, the claim that children are basically immune from coronavirus is false and may mislead parents into taking risks with their children that they ought not to take. While I think Trump did not mean exactly what he said (and that most people can understand this), surely an interest in protecting children favors censoring the content, outweighing this presumption.

Yet, whether this consideration is decisive in favor of censorship does not simply depend upon the magnitude of the risks unreflective uptake of the content poses (which might be slight). It also depends crucially upon censorship’s being sufficiently effective in stopping parents from taking such risks as to outweigh people’s legitimate interest in hearing what our elected officials say about important topics and the costs to credibility that platforms might incur as a result. Here, it is important that the censorship will not achieve this much unless enough people who would have otherwise seen and taken Trump’s words at face value are now shielded from their harmful effects. My other worries about the unintended consequences of censorship aside, I wonder how many now find themselves in such a position.

In the end, though Trump is wrong that children are immune to covid-19, he might well be right that the evidence favors reopening schools. Given plausible hypotheses about the importance of early education in socializing children, for adding meaning and purpose to their lives, for helping parents get back to work, for taking children out of deprived and abusive environments, and for ensuring that vulnerable children are not left behind, reasons to favor reopening hang heavy in the balance. These reasons must be weighed carefully against risks to children and to teachers and family members from reopening, risks that Trump himself has previously acknowledged. If the United States chooses to reopen its schools, it will not be alone. Sweden never closed them, and a number of other countries (many of them apparently faring better in the fight against coronavirus) have similar plans.  All other matters aside, it would be unfortunate if discussion of these serious issues were to take a back seat to the political theater of a battle between Silicon Valley executives and the commander in chief. Sadly, all parties involved are acting in ways that may predictably realize this unfortunate outcome.

Social Media Censorship: Four Lessons from the Recent Suppression of Covid-19 ‘Disinformation’

On July 27th 2020, a group of physicians calling themselves “Frontline Doctors” posted a video to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The video displays licensed medical doctors in front of a supreme court building (1) advocating the reopening of schools, (2) suggesting that there are public health costs of lockdowns (e.g., excess suicides, cases of depression, domestic violence, and substance abuse) and (3) extolling the virtues of zinc and hydroxychloroquine (a drug whose robust supply is essential for managing lupus and other ailments) in treating and preventing COVID-19 infections. By the morning of July 28th, the video had roughly 14 million views and had been removed from every mainstream platform that had initially hosted it for violating their coronavirus misinformation policies. On the same morning, I became curious and watched the video elsewhere. It was not hard to find.

Lesson one: Despite claims that private social media companies regularly violate persons’ free speech rights, actions by private companies to censor content are much less worrying than similar actions by state agents. This is partially because it’s relatively easy to access content that private parties take down. Less so when the state does it.

On July 29th, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt ran a “morning briefing” indicating that the video had been removed for suggesting that hydroxychloroquine was an effective cure and that masks were unnecessary. The remark on masks was a mere snippet of the much broader message. “You don’t need a mask,” Stella Immanuel said, “there’s a cure.”  She herself admits to wearing a surgical mask, so presumably she does not mean that there is no reason to wear a mask in the absence of the drug’s widespread deployment. Other doctors who spoke at the event clearly advocate social distancing and mask-wearing practices.

But leaving this claim aside, there is at least some truth in the main of what these doctors were saying. The segment lasted over 45 minutes, only a small portion of which contained anything about masks and only some of which concerned hydroxychloroquine . Many of the group’s claims about the safety of reopening schools and the hidden public health costs of lockdowns are largely uncontroversial. Others, e.g., that Sweden’s response represents an alternative approach to locking down are likewise true, even if the results of Sweden’s alternative approach have been mixed. Labeling the entire segment false or misleading thus does disservice to what’s true in it.

Lesson two: John Stuart Mill was right that censored content that is false often contains important half-truths and that this matters when considering whether to suppress it.

In the same piece, Leonhardt claimed that confusion induced by social media platforms’ failure to aggressively censor content is among the most noteworthy causes of the United States’ comparatively bad coronavirus outcomes. (Leonhardt also cited Sinclair’s media network, which broadcasts content downplaying the risks of the virus.) Let’s leave aside the fact that the causal explanation of the U.S.’s performance relative to its peers is a matter of some complexity and focus instead on something striking about the causal claim he in fact makes: that social media companies’ lack of censorship deserves a large portion of the blame for these outcomes.

But notice that reporters like Leonhardt at mainstream media outlets have likely done more than any social media platform to spread this particular video’s message. Had the message merely remained on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook (as so much content does) I would not have watched it. The same is surely true for countless others. But because the video’s content, which might have otherwise maintained a kind of cult viewership, was covered by all of the major news outlets, lots of people sought it out. This is the Streisand Effect in action: very often, attempts to suppress information lead to its viral spread. This matters because there are in effect two possibilities: either the ineptly suppressed content is dangerous or it isn’t. If it is genuinely dangerous, then Leonhardt (and others like him) have acted irresponsibly by their own lights by drawing much more attention to it. If the content of the video is not genuinely dangerous, on the other hand, then the main justification for removing the content in the first place is implausible.

Now, you might say the way that mainstream outlets spread the speech was not dangerous insofar as it was framed explicitly as containing disinformation. The problem is twofold. First,  the current media climate is so polarized right now that even once reputable outlets like the New York Times are deemed untrustworthy by a significant subset of the population. (Some go so far as to claim that these outlets are anti-reliable.) When such outlets declare something to be disinformation, then, there is real reason to worry that people skeptical of the outlet will be more favorably disposed to the bad speech than they’d otherwise have been. Second, some research has uncovered an Illusory Truth Effect, according to which people are more likely to believe things that they hear constantly repeated, even if listeners know the repeated claim is false.

Lesson Three: If there’s dangerous content out there, it’s often better to ignore it than draw increased attention to it. Paradoxically, censoring content is among the best ways of promoting it. Given the newsworthiness of social media censorship, were these companies to do what Leonhardt wants them to do and censor content more often, the effect might well be that the allegedly dangerous content reaches a wider audience than it otherwise would.

None of this is to deny that some of what these doctors said sounds crazy. (Though, notably, for some of them, their professional views on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine are among their most innocuous.) Still, it’s important not to pretend that the coronavirus treatment science is settled—there is still much that we don’t know, and the mainstream medical researchers at least deem the hypothesis that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment worthy of study in high profile scientific outlets. Until these questions are settled, it’s important for professionals, even fringe professionals, to make their arguments without being dismissed out of hand and derided. Importantly, the arguments regarding hydroxychloroquine offered by the so-called “Frontline Doctors” are largely anecdotal, rely on small sample sizes (n=350), and are afflicted with other problems evident to anyone remotely well-versed in critical thinking. Were these arguments to become widely accepted, it would be important to recognize their flaws and to draw public attention to them. But to think that the conclusions of such arguments are beyond the pale—especially in the context of the broader pandemic, during which those insisting on proper data collection techniques have been derided for not acting quickly enough—is, frankly, not credible. Thus even if these arguments should be discredited and derided, it’s important to take care not to similarly deride and discredit those who argue for similar conclusions from more solid grounds.

Lesson four: If you must draw attention to a bad argument that someone makes on some important issue, focus on the argument’s substance, rather than discrediting what speakers say by taking small claims they make out of context. Doing so is a small first step toward establishing credibility with those who disagree with you. Again, there is no first amendment issue here, but even the most fastidious protection of our rights to speak against government interference is insufficient for ensuring a healthy atmosphere for discourse.

Reflecting on The Box

I just finished Marc Levinson’s book The Box (CE*), which traces the introduction and development of the shipping container and its impact on global trade. You might think from that description that it was quite a dull read, but actually it was fascinating. (Steve Davies has a very useful 3-minute overview here. Check it out, I’ll wait.) The story includes an interesting take on the nature of innovation – while Malcom McLean is clearly an important innovator whose role cannot be discounted, lots of other people and events are indispensable parts of the story, which, as Hayek would be happy to remind us, is vastly complex and is the result of more inputs that one might guess. Levinson notes that single-actor “a-ha!” stories stir the imagination, but tend to obscure the actual process by which change occurs. Individual insight and entrepreneurship are real, of course, but if we want to fully understand innovation, we need to know about the other inputs as well.

Levinson’s story is a great illustration of unpredictability and the difficulties in planning. The book shows how both governments and private actors made some bad mistakes along the way, and the way things are in 2021 were largely unforeseen in 1956. Not only would the people in 1956 not have been able to predict the way the shipping business would evolve, they also couldn’t have predicted the way those changes would impact manufacturing, global supply chains, urban planning, the economic impact on then-undeveloped countries.
Another thing I found useful in this book is that it’s a great illustration of the tensions between classical liberal proponents of free markets, and actual business leaders. Levinson’s story is rife with lobbying, subsidies, and regulation. The regulatory activity is an important part of the story; sometimes helping move progress along, often hampering progress or promoting malinvestment. In some cases the regulatory structure reveals the political influence of industry leaders, other times that of unions. Indeed, labor unions come off as not particularly more noble than the captains of industry, as we see them press for rules that allow for make-work and featherbedding, and to shield themselves from the disruption innovation frequently entails. But the business leaders are, in a different way, seeking protection from competition and subsidies for their experiments – the exact opposite of “laissez-faire.”

Levinson tells the story in a fair-minded way – he’s sympathetic to the dock workers who stand to lose jobs, even as he describes rules and practices that are plainly self-serving and can’t withstand rational scrutiny. Meanwhile, he’s very up-front about the way the business leaders transparently seek favorable regulatory systems, as if skillful lobbying is as much a part of business as entrepreneurship and competition. It’s a prime example of “Horwitz’s First Law of Political Economy”: no one hates capitalism more than capitalists. More precisely, in this case, they simply take it as a given that there is a regulatory apparatus, and therefore do see “competing” via lobbying for a favorable place in the regulatory regime like competing in the market. And when Levinson shows us the point of view of the legislators who are on the other end of the lobbying efforts, it’s sometimes almost comedic, as they have to juggle “protecting” the interests of shipping companies, railroads, trucking companies, manufacturers, longshoremen’s unions, the Teamsters, stevedores’ unions, and so on – all of whose interests are often at odds with each other, and with that of the general public.

Interestingly, despite all the intervention by regulators and lobbyists from both labor and business, the innovation happens, the industry evolves, and millions of people experience an increased standard of living as global poverty declines massively. So is “capitalism” the story of businesses and unions “competing” via lobbyists for special legal protections? Or is “capitalism” the word for exchanges and competition that happen without government intervention? Obviously the word gets used to mean both, although that’s oxymoronic (which is a good reason to avoid the word – a topic for another day’s blogpost). But the story of the shipping container shows that despite, if not because of, political pull and self-dealing, dynamic innovations have the power to help millions of people lead better lives, often in ways no one could have predicted.

CE*=RCL earns commissions if you buy from this link; commissions support this site.

When Equalizers Are Thought To Be Biased

Writing in the New York Times this past Thursday, Anthony Tomassini called for ending blind auditions for orchestras, because the orchestras are not coming out diverse enough. What strikes me as odd about this is that the whole reason for blind auditions is to encourage diversity, by eliminating unconscious bias. The argument would go something like this: the orchestra is all white men, it’s highly unlikely that no women or POC are talented enough to play enough in the orchestra, therefore it’s probable that there’s bias in the selection process, but if we hold blind auditions, no one will know the gender or ethnicity of the candidate. And sure enough, while women made up around 6% of orchestras in 1970, today “women make up a third of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and they are half the New York Philharmonic.” However, black and Latino artists hover around 2%. So Tomassini suggests that we now end blind auditions in order to purposely increase POC representation in orchestras. The article considers, but is dismissive of, the idea that the best way to get more POC orchestra members is to address bias issues in school music programs, so that more POC are going to the blind auditions. Tomassini rejects this on the grounds that at the top levels, everyone is pretty much as good as everyone else, so we might as well prioritize other values such as representation.

While I suspect it’s false that there is “remarkably little difference between players at the top tier,” my point today is not to argue against Tomassini’s conclusion. I don’t have particularly strong views on how orchestras should be constructed. Rather, what motivated me was that I was reading this story on the same day that my news feed brought me yet another article arguing that the SAT is “mired in racism and classism.” In both instances, we have something that was designed to eliminate bias being castigated for being biased. In the old days, admission to elite universities was largely a matter of connections – if you were white and wealthy and attended good prep schools, you could go to an elite university. If you were female, or Jewish, or low-SES, or non-white, or a recent immigrant, it didn’t matter much if you were very smart and industrious. The “old boy” network would have still excluded you. Standardized testing was meant to undermine that bias by providing objective evidence that a woman, or a Jew, or a recent immigrant from Italy, or an African-American, could be just as smart, just as capable of dealing with college, as the WASP boys were. And sure enough, the elite institutions diversified broadly. But. It’s generally well-accepted that you can get better SAT scores if you have lots of prep coaching, which the wealthier can procure much more easily, so despite the success of standardized testing in increasing diversity, concerns remain about bias.

Now I do have slightly stronger opinions about education policy than I do about orchestra membership, and I am not convinced that the SAT is as horrible as Teen Vogue makes it out to be. But even if it is, it’s far from obvious what the solution should be. If we eliminate standardized testing, college admissions would be based on something else. High school grades? Given the great disparity in schools, this would make the problem much worse, not better. The rich kids from elite prep schools, or even just well-funded suburban public schools, will have at least as much of an edge in terms of showing good grades as they do in test coaching. What about appealing to other things, like who is on the crew team? It’s obvious that that sort of metric would be biased as well. What about the personal essay? That’s even more susceptible to coaching and prep advantages than testing. To take a page from Tomassini, we might say “well, there’s remarkably little difference between students at the top tier,” so we can select for as much diversity as we like – except in this case we don’t yet know which students are in the top tier.

What both of these stories have in common is a tension between conceptions of equality. If selection for elite institutions is based on racial/gender/SES discrimination, that’s inegalitarian. But if mechanisms for routing around bias fail to eliminate all bias, or introduce new bias, what to do? Does meritocratic egalitarianism help, or hinder, diversity along racial/gender/SES lines? I am not sure there are easy answers here. One piece of right-wing snark I saw online said of the orchestra issue “this is the civil war between white women and blacks.” The implication there seems to be that gains for women come at the expense of gains for African-Americans and vice-versa. It’s a zero-sum game in the sense that there are only so many slots in a particular orchestra (or an incoming freshman class), but how those slots are filled is a values question. What is the main desideratum? Excellence? Representation? Preservation of status quo? Inclusion? Exclusion? Not all these are mutually incompatible: When baseball was segregated, you couldn’t really claim that excellence was the main value, because the great talent of Negro League players was excluded. Promoting a value of inclusiveness aided the promotion of a value of excellence. (So too with Ivy League schools ending their prohibition of females, Jews, blacks, etc.) But different institutions might seek different values. In professional sports, you don’t have to be a native of (say) Pittsburgh to play for the Pittsburgh teams. But in international amateur competitions, the team from Finland is made up of Finns. There’s no metaphysical necessity behind one institution having one rule and the other having the other. That’s just the way those institutions developed. But clearly there’s a difference between (a) the Finnish team says “sorry, no Danes allowed” and (b) the Finnish team says “sorry, no Jews allowed, even Finnish Jews.” So some forms of discrimination are more legit than others. But that doesn’t tell us whether to abolish testing for college admissions, or blind auditions. Those institutions need to clarify – both to themselves and to their public – what their chief values are. We won’t solve the problem by just assuming that all institutions have, or even should have, the same values and purposes.



Allegory for last week

I’m thinking of writing an essay on themes of moral equality and its consequences for political theory. I’m going to argue that people are morally justified in resisting, by armed force if necessary, when agents of an oppressive, colonialist power routinely violate their rights, acting like a thuggish, occupying army rather than, as their propagandists claim, dedicated protectors of public safety. Part of the basis for this will be the idea that it’s conceptually mistaken to think that there are different classes of person, some of whom are morally better, or more capable of self-control, than others. On that (wrong) view, one would be able to justify all sorts of oppression and rights violations, but on the view I’m going to defend, all persons have equal moral worth, so there’s no good justification for, say, beating peaceful protesters, or arresting them on trumped-up charges and punishing them in kangaroo courts that are rigged to keep them down. I’ll use the fundamental moral equality premise to argue that people’s basic rights are conceptually prior to state power, and that therefore the latter is hard to justify – at a bare minimum its authority would require consent, consent that is conditional on that authority not overstepping its bounds and becoming oppressive. When power is abused, consent is withdrawn, and the power then lacks legitimacy and hence can be resisted. I would think this essay will be welcome in the current climate of protests against police brutality and mass incarceration and policies that treat whole segments of the population as second-class citizens.

I’d be mistaken, of course. In most online discussions of that essay this past week, I saw people getting it wrong in two distinct ways. One set was people who thought it sounded pretty cool, but somehow thought that it meant that the people protesting rights violations were the bad guys and that the brutal repression was justified, and that it’s fine to treat whole segments of the population as if their rights didn’t matter. Some of them actually said that whatever the agents of state power say is ipso facto right. These people say they like the essay, but have managed to miss its point entirely.

The other set was people who agreed with me that it’s bad to systematically violate rights, yet for some reason hated the essay. When I tried to ask them why they hated it, some of them accused me of endorsing the rights violations. That’s self-evidently stupid, of course, since the essay is about why those rights violations are bad. Other people said they hated the essay because not everyone takes it seriously enough. That struck me as an odd reason to dislike an essay. If it makes a sound argument that you agree with, you should like it, even if other people have ignored it. Some people said they didn’t like the essay because some other document, written by someone else, has a lot of flaws. When I said that I agree that that other document has serious problems, and indeed that its problems were largely rooted in insufficient attention to my essay, they simply reiterated in “this-one-goes-to-eleven” fashion that the other thing is flawed.

Anyway, I’m not actually not going to write this essay, first of all because people just insist on missing its point, or on getting mad at me about something other than what’s in the essay, and second of all, because it would be plagiarism, in case this allegory wasn’t obvious enough.

No True “No True Scotsman”

Say you encounter someone, Sam, saying “I dislike [movement/theory/group G], because they say [bad thing B].” Say you’re a member/proponent of G, and you not only agree that B is bad, but you’re pretty sure that’s not representative of G, and indeed inconsistent with G, so you tell Sam that, and Sam replies that some other person Bob says B, and that Bob is a G. Under what conditions can we properly affirm that Bob is in fact not a G? In logic class we encounter the “no true Scotsman” fallacy:
“No Scotsman would drink vodka”
“McGregor [a Scotsman] drinks vodka.”
“Well, no true Scotsman would drink vodka.”
The illicit rhetorical move accomplished by this fallacy is to immunize a generalization against a refutation by counterexample by smuggling in an ad hoc modification to the definition.

But is every scenario like the one I’ve described an example of “no true Scotsman” fallacy? Say Bob claims to be a Christian, but frequently lies and betrays and kills. When asked, he reports that he does not believe in the divinity of Jesus, or even in God at all. So if Sam said “I dislike Christians, that Bob guy is just awful,” and you replied “look, Bob just is not a Christian, so you’re mistaken to dislike Christianity because you don’t like Bob,” would you be committing “no true Scotsman” fallacy? I think the answer is no. You are correct; Bob, despite calling himself Christian, is not one, and Sam is wrong both to take Bob as representative of Christianity and to dislike Christians on that basis.

This comes up in political contexts, of course. Sam claims to dislike libertarianism because he read something by Bob, who also claims to be libertarian, to the effect that it’s great that the police harass racial minorities and imprison them for minor offenses, or that immigration from Mexico is a bad thing because they’re mostly criminals anyway. This is a fictional example, but I’ve engaged on social media with people who claim that libertarianism is bad because that one guy is a racist, or that one other guy opposes immigration. I generally respond by enumerating the ways in which racism (or closed-borders or protectionism or what have you) just aren’t part of libertarianism. Am I committing “no true Scotsman” fallacy? I don’t think so. I think, as in the case of Bob the non-Christian, that there has to be a way to respond to caricature and distortion that is not also committing the fallacy. As with the religion case, Bob may simply be inaccurate in his self-description of his politics.

First of all, we might distinguish between (a) people who are academics, writers, attorneys, people who think about things enough to have what could even be considered a coherent set of views, and are libertarian, from (b) right-wingers (or whatever) who like 2 planks of the LP platform and then say they’re libertarian while nevertheless disagreeing with the other 95% of it. People in (b) are not coherent, and their self-labeling just cannot be taken for what libertarianism is. To act as though that is what libertarianism is is either unserious thinking, or deliberate dishonesty.

I can see how it might look like I’m doing “no true Scotsman,” but I am not. I’m saying that just because Bob says “yeah, I’m a libertarian,” that doesn’t mean that Bob is representative of libertarianism, and it might not even mean that Bob is libertarian at all (in the same way that he’s not a Christian). Here’s how: It’s possible that people can like something about a label, or what they heard that one time, that makes them think “that’s me,” when in fact they’re so misinformed that it really isn’t. This happens all the time – for example, lots of college-age people report a self-identification as socialist. On investigation, though, this turns out to mean they favor universal health care and free college, or are worried about income inequality, not that they want to abolish private property and nationalize all industry. So they say “I’m a socialist,” but in fact are not, because they don’t even really understand these theories well enough to have a coherent view. They’ve heard that free health care is socialist, and they want free health care, so they say they’re socialists. But if you give them some Marx to read, that’s not what they want at all. So too with libertarianism. Libertarians call for lower taxes, Bob wants lower taxes, so he says he’s a libertarian. But that’s obviously wrong if he simultaneously rejects the other 95% of what libertarians say. Bob is like the free health care kid in my analogy.

Of course, there are things libertarians disagree about, and in most cases it’s unhelpful to apply “purity tests” and excommunicate people. But if labels can mean anything anyone wants them to mean, there’d be little point in doing political theory, or philosophy at all, because nothing means anything, humpty-dumpty style. Socialist, fascist, libertarian, Austrian – we have to have some usage standards about when these words are deployed or we can’t really have any discussion at all. Most people are very confused about politics in general and labels in particular, so those of us “in the business” need to help promote clarity. It’s as if people debating medical issues said “hey, I say it’s virus, so just because you call it bacteria doesn’t mean I have to agree. It’s a virus to me”; or if people debating astronomy said “look, comets and asteroids are the same thing in my book, so I don’t care what you think the distinction is.” Nothing productive would come out of discussions like that.

We not only can help out by pushing for clarity and precision, we should do so. Whatever your political position, your cause will be poorly served by imprecision and humpty-dumptyism. I think it’s fine to claim that lots of self-labeled “socialists” aren’t actually socialists, and that lots of self-labeled “libertarians” aren’t actually libertarians. People’s self-claimed labels may not be accurate, especially in a world where labels are often a substitute for philosophy. It isn’t a “no true Scotsman” fallacy to point that out.

Free Expression And Evolving Standards

This is a guest post by Ryan Muldoon of The Philosophy Department and PPE at the University of Buffalo.


The letter in Harper’s magazine has generated a great deal of discussion around free speech, and whether we are in an era of diminished capacity to speak one’s mind. I am quite interested in maintaining a culture of free expression, and have written on the subject in the past, and hope to write more in the future. I think it’s worth noting a few things that may help us think more carefully about our current debate.

1. Free expression is probably at an all-time high right now, at least in the West. There is a huge variety of different venues for your writing, there’s a whole new world podcasts for speeches, and an ever-increasing supply of video outlets. The availability of these platforms and publishers doesn’t guarantee you an audience, but that’s not what free expression means.
2. Related to that, some of the technologies that have enabled easy speech have made counter-speech extraordinarily easy as well.
3. There are a lot more people who are not you than there are people who are you, and so easy counter-speech means that it’s entirely possible to get inundated with unpleasantness.
4. Because of (2 and 3), people are often careful about what they say, and may feel burdened by this.
5. It is hard to get (1) without (2). The ability to broadcast to others means that they can broadcast back.
6. (4) may hit socially well-positioned people, but it hits vulnerable people far more.

Finally, we’re in a period of shifting cultural attitudes, and (hopefully) increasing equality of persons, and everyone is attempting to police different boundaries of what they take is appropriate. There have always been boundaries, there will always be boundaries, and it is a reasonable thing to argue about. Especially as new voices and new arguments come to the fore, some established views and voices may come to look less appealing. What was once ok might now be seen as out of bounds. But that may well be because what was once out of bounds is now acceptable. Likewise, newer voices may be ones that had a harder time being heard before. That there is a shift in the boundaries does not mean that they have necessarily shrunk. They may have just changed. That may well influence whose voices are more easily heard.

I predict that this debate will flare up with some frequency, in part because it is now so easy to pile on, and it’s easy to find examples of social punishments getting excessive. It would be good if we could figure out some better way of dealing with proportionality, but in a decentralized system of speech that is going to be very difficult.

Violent Protest and Lesser evil

Recently I argued that the deliberate destruction of the property of innocent persons by otherwise justified protesters is condemned by the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE), which requires that such collateral harm be merely foreseen, and not directly intended.

But someone may reply that the DDE is wrong and that whether intent is direct or oblique doesn’t really matter. She may propose instead the Doctrine of the Lesser Evil (DLE). According to DLE, we are sometimes justified in harming persons directly in order to achieve a worthier cause. A classical example is a person starving at a mountain. He is permitted to trespass into someone else’s cabin, eat their food, and so on, in order to survive. Surely everyone accepts this. Similarly, protesters who burn the neighbors’ buildings as a way to end racial injustice are justified, given the disparity of values at stake.

But the case of violent protest is disanalogous to the case of the starving person at the mountain. In the latter, breaking into the cabin and eating the food is surviving. There is no causal relationship between the harmful act and the worthy end. They are identical. In contrast, in the case of violent protest the causal relationship between the harmful act (burning buildings) and the worthy goal (end racial injustice) is (to put it mildly) tenuous. It is improbable that burning buildings will end racial injustice.

The upshot is that in order to dispense with the intent requirement of the DDE, the agent’s probability of success must be high. The DDE, perhaps, condemns some actions that the DLE allows. But even under the DLE it is unlikely that this intentional harm to third parties can be justified.

(Many thanks to Alejandro Chehtman of Di Tella University, Buenos Aires, for flagging the issue.)

Introducing Radical Classical Liberals

As many of you know, the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog ran from 2011-2020. At least two blogs are taking up elements of BHL’s project. If you haven’t checked out http://200proofliberals.blogspot.com, we highly recommend it. This, though, is Radical Classical Liberals. Welcome.

A view like that (re)developed and encouraged on BHL is needed in the blogosphere, in academia, and in our broader culture. This blog will provide that—a classical liberal view that maintains a clear and unapologetic concern for the plight of the less fortunate—at a point in time when it seems the world is finally being forced to take those concerns seriously. Importantly, we’ll do so in a way meant to encourage greater civil dialogue. We hope to provide a counter to the sound bite culture so prevalent in contemporary media; we do so in order to provide greater understanding—both to our readers and to ourselves.

We are all academics with an interest in encouraging more informed, reasoned, and civil discourse outside academia as well as inside. A majority of us here are philosophers, some are law professors, some are political scientists, and one is a business professor. Many of us take the original classical liberals—thinkers like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill—as intellectual heroes. Some also favor Aristotle or Kant. On our pages, you might read about those famous denizens of the history of thought. You might also read about some unfortunately lesser known thinkers—Frédéric Bastiat and Voltairine de Cleyre, for examples. And you may read about difficult issues in academic debates. Most of what you’re likely to see on these pages, though, will be comments about social, legal, moral, and political issues in our society. You are likely to encounter arguments for specific views that one or more of us think follow from our classical liberal commitments. We may also argue with each other about these.

Our hopes for the blog are varied. They include showcasing the attractiveness of dynamic markets and anti-authoritarian solutions to contemporary problems, how these are often the best hope for those concerned with issues of deprivation, exclusion, and subordination, and how, far too often, government solutions are more pretense than substance. We are all concerned to show how freedom (we may disagree about what that is) goes hand in hand with prosperity for all. Putting that differently, we all recognize the value of markets and social justice on some understanding that recognizes (minimally) the basic moral equality of all human adults. Within that framework, our opinions are likely to vary considerably.

We hope to appeal to those who are curious about moral, legal, political, and social thought. While we all have our own existing biases, we hope to be able to bracket our prior beliefs and argue from acceptable premises to important conclusions—all with respectful and reasoned discussion. No doubt you will sometimes disagree with us. We hope to remain intellectually honest, open-minded, and charitable—and to show the value of those virtues.

So, welcome to the blog of Radical Classical Liberals.