For the past three centuries, in places infused with Enlightenment values, the norm for the discovery and dissemination of knowledge has been persuasion rather than compulsion. Nicolaus has a new idea about the circulation of planets. William has a new idea about the circulation of blood. Adam has a new idea about the circulation of goods and services in commerce. How are we to know if these ideas have merit? Simple: We allow these ideas to be articulated without obstruction, and we allow other people – any other people – to join in the discussion. If Adam wants me to accept his idea, he’s not allowed to club me over the head or seize my property if I reject his idea. He must talk to me (or write; same thing really). He must persuade me.
There’s something else Adam isn’t allowed to do. He’s not allowed to stop Karl, or Maynard, or Donald, or Bernie, or Alexandria, or anyone else from talking to me. Adam, being human, would perhaps prefer to be able to muzzle the mouths or clog the keyboards of those who express ideas that contradict his own. That way it would be so much easier for him to persuade me that his ideas really are the best. But an invisible and impartial spectator perched on Adam’s shoulder informs him of a reality that, ironically, comes as close as any in this vale to being a Truth: No idea is so surely complete or correct that it might not be improved, or even discredited, by encountering different and better ideas.
Here’s something else Adam, if he is wise, knows: If his ideas are worthy, he doesn’t need to force them on other people with coercion. Their worthiness gives these ideas a pretty good advantage naturally. Adam, being wise, gives a knowing thumbs-up to H.L. Mencken’s terse observation that “The kind of man who demands that government enforce his ideas is always the kind whose ideas are idiotic.”
Of course, because we humans are imperfect, it’s possible that Adam’s excellent ideas will nevertheless be widely rejected in favor of ideas that Adam and his many wise and well-read friends fervently believe to be inferior. But in a society that rejects coercion as a means of promoting ideas, wise Adam knows also that, over time, if his ideas really are the best available, they will at least always enjoy the prospect of one day being accepted.
There’s yet another piece of knowledge – one especially crucial – known to wise Adam, which is this: If he were today to resort to coercion to press his ideas, he’d thereby pave the path for Karl or Alexandria, when they gain positions of power, to use coercion to impose ‘acceptance’ of their ideas. And not only does Adam wisely fear that particular outcome, he understands that he would then have no standing to object to Karl’s or Alexandria’s resort to coercion as the means of achieving ‘acceptance’ of their ideas.