You have raised an excellent question: when (if ever) does the “marketplace of ideas” fail us? I believe our libertarian impulses naturally pull us toward supporting an untrammeled intellectual exchange. And, based on my experience, this is not a bad thing. For me, many important discoveries have come out of heated, controversial, and unusual discussions. Just as John Stuart Mill argued we needed “experiments in living” in order for society to evolve to its fullest potential, so do we need “experiments in thinking” in order for the best ideas to become even better. As Milton (the erstwhile inspiration for this blog) wrote “who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

This triumphalist language calls for some unpacking. First, what do we mean by a “free and open encounter” or an “experiment in thinking?” It seems these phrases might be nothing more than abstractions– perhaps useful, but in no way perfect or attainable it some pure form. The fact is, even our most free and open exchanges are bound by some sort of structure, be it institutional rules, norms and tastes, or legal mandates.

My argument is this: we must seek to make the structures that govern our exchanges as limited as possible– especially where law is concerned.

The example of Holocaust denial is a good one. Our institutional rules (university hiring and evaluation practice) cancel out any chance for an academic groundswell of Holocaust deniers. Our norms and our good taste have also made the argument nothing short of heretical. These restraints on speech are generally good. Free speech does not mean the right to be given a tenure-track position or to be respected at a cocktail party. Rather, it is an obligation the state has to let its citizens express themselves.

The liberal state is not in the interest of generating outcomes. It rather focuses on setting up a framework in which free individuals operate, ideally, to create a better society. Liberal societies have been operating under this principle since the Enlightenment. Small wonder the most tolerant, creative, and economically prosperous societies on the planet right now are liberal ones. Liberal states have thrived because their citizens have known what to expect from their governments. Denying the Holocaust (or saying any other idiotic thing) will not go from legal to illegal overnight. Whether society will give you much credence (as we have discussed) is another issue. But suffice it to say, liberalism allows us to say whatever we want, and this is not a bad thing.

At the end of the day, free speech is one component in a bundle of rights governed by the rule of law. These are rights that citizens can count on not to go away. How these rights play out– in the “funkiness of life,” the specific instances of speech– is not up to the state, but to us. We decide what to say, who to hire and fire, and ultimately what we value. It’s a responsibility I would never want to pass off to the state.

Daniel Corbett