Phoolishly Against Phreedom of Speech

by Don Boudreaux on December 8, 2015

in Books, Hubris and humility, Man of System, Nanny State, Politics

I just finished reading George Akerlof’s and Robert Shiller’s new book, Phishing for Phools.  I’m not impressed.  The reasons for my low opinion of the book are many – but I’ll save them to include in a review that I’m writing of the book for Barron’s.

Here I point out only that Akerlof and Shiller display throughout the text no appreciation whatsoever for freedom as an end it itself.  And, especially, their opposition to freedom of speech – as this freedom has long been understood under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – is quite shocking.  It’s shocking both because of their breezy dismissal – without real argument – of one of the chief consequentialist arguments in favor of free speech (namely, that the best antidote to misleading or mistaken speech is the freedom of others with opposing or wiser opinions to speak) and because of how brazenly and cavalierly they reject the case for freedom of speech.

To explain their opposition to unregulated free speech, they use the Citizens United decision – a decision infamous in the academic and social circles that Akerlof and Shiller likely call their own.  Unsurprisingly, Akerlof and Shiller regard Citizens United be be a faulty decision.

Here’s Akerlof and Shiller (page 160, emphasis added):

Our view of free speech closely mirrors our view of free markets.  We view both as critical for economic prosperity; and free speech as especially critical for democracy.  But just as phishing for phools* yields a downside to free markets, similarly, it yields a downside to free speech.  Like markets, free speech requires rules to filter the functional from the dysfunctional.


Yet more basically it [the majority opinion in Citizens United] seemed to see no downside to free speech so that rules might be in order.

If you’ve not read Phishing for Phools you might suppose that the “rules” that Akerlof and Shiller here endorse are exclusively of the sort long recognized as sensible and consistent with even an absolutist view of the First Amendment – rules such as “No one has a right to shout ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater that isn’t on fire.”  But such rules are not what they’re talking about.  The rules – restrictions, really – on free speech that they endorse are ones aimed at protecting people not from objectively determinable falsehoods (such as that a theater not on fire is said to be on fire, or that a woman who is not a prostitute is publicly slandered as being a prostitute).  Rather, the restrictions on speech endorsed by Akerlof and Shiller are restrictions aimed at protecting people from “dysfunctional” speech – speech that, in Akerlof’s and Shiller’s view, is too likely to appeal to people’s base or careless emotions rather than to their cool and careful intellects, or that is too likely to be louder than some other speech that presumably ‘should’ be heard without its speakers having to compete so intensely against other, louder speakers.  More specifically, Akerlof and Shiller want to restrict political speech.

In short, on the question of freedom of speech Akerlof and Shiller insist that we “need” a “careful compromise to temper the problems of phishing for phools,” especially in the political arena (p. 162).

Who will determine the details of such a “compromise?”  Who will determine what kinds of speech are too likely to subjectively mislead people and which kinds of speech aren’t sufficiently likely to do so?  And why should people trust anyone with the power to restrict speech in the ways that Akerlof and Shiller endorse?  Also and relatedly, if the power to restrict speech is entrusted to government officials, isn’t a huge risk thereby created that such officials will use their power to further augment their power in ways that are socially harmful?

Akerlof and Shiller do not ask, much less answer, such questions.  Yet when someone calls for restrictions on the freedoms of peaceful people, it is not sufficient blithely to suppose that such restrictions will in practice work in the ‘successful’ way that that someone imagines them working.  Instead, a plausible argument – one that accounts for political and human reality – must be offered to explain how such restrictions can realistically be confined so that they are not generally abused.  Akerlof and Shiller seem not even to recognize the problem, so it’s no surprise that they offer no such argument for how, in practice, a regime of restricted speech will operate to promote the greater good.

Their case for restricted speech can be summarized as ‘We believe that much protected speech today is misleading and socially harmful, therefore we – of course using government force – must prevent such misleading speech.’  Period.  End of story.  Akerlof and Shiller have made what they believe to be a compelling case for restricting speech, especially in the realm of politics.

The tyranny lurking in such a proposal is frightening.  It is, no doubt, a tyranny not borne of conventionally evil motives – such as hatred of an ethnic group, or the desire to materially profit at the expense of others.  It is instead a tyranny borne of a ridiculous combination of arrogance and innocence: the arrogance of people such as Akerlof and Shiller to presume that they (or people like them) can determine what sorts of speech should be allowed and which should be prohibited on the grounds that it is “dysfunctional,” and the innocence of people such as Akerlof and Shiller that blinds them to the reality that, were their scheme to be adopted, it would soon be used not in the ways that Akerlof and Shiller fancy that it would be used but, rather, in ways even far more devious and destructive.

To fall for Akerlof’s and Shiller’s proposal to restrict speech would be to be phished for a phool – but, in this case, the phishermen are themselves also phools.

I’ve some other comments on Akerlof’s and Shiller’s extraordinarily weak case in support of restricted speech, but I’ll save those for a later post.


* According to Akerlof and Shiller, phishing for phools “is about getting people to do things that are in the interest of the phisherman, but not in the interest of the target” (p. xi).  If the target falls for the phisherman’s lure, the target is a “phool.”  The target has been “phished for a phool.”


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