Attack of the Utility Monsters: The New Threats to Free Speech (Policy Analysis)

Studies from the Cato Institute | Contributor

Freedom of expression is looking less and less

like a settled issue. Challenges to it have lately

arisen from the right, from the left, from Muslim

perspectives, and even in the name of protecting

children online. These challenges seem to share an

underlying concern, namely that we must balance

free expression against the psychic hurt that some

expressions will provoke. Often these critiques are

couched in language that draws or appears to

draw, on the law and economics movement. Yet

the cost-benefit analyses advanced to support

restrictions on expression are incomplete, subjective,

and self-contradictory.

Several examples help to illustrate this point,

including flag-desecration laws, hate-speech laws in

the United Kingdom and Canada, U.S. college and

university speech codes, the Cairo Declaration on

Human Rights in Islam, and the Megan Meier

Cyberbullying Prevention Act, currently before the

House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime,

Terrorism, and Homeland Security. Although seemingly

unrelated, these measures rely on a common

assumption, namely that governments should provide

emotional well-being to their citizens, even at

the expense of free expression. This assumption discounts

the emotional well-being of other citizens,

neglects countervailing social considerations, and

hands arbitrary power to governments.

The result is not more happiness, but a race to

the bottom, in which aggrieved groups compete

endlessly with one another for a slice of government

power. Philosopher Robert Nozick once observed

that utilitarianism is hard-pressed to banish what he

termed utility monsters—that is, individuals who take

inordinate satisfaction from acts that displease others.

Arguing about who hurt whose feelings worse,

and about who needs more soothing than whom,

seems designed to discover—or create—utility monsters.

We must not allow this to happen.

Instead, liberal governments have traditionally

relied on a particular bargain, in which freedom of

expression is maintained for all, and in which

emotional satisfaction is a private pursuit, not a

public guarantee. This bargain can extend equally

to all people, and it forms the basis for an enduring

and diverse society, one in which differences

may be aired without fear of reprisal. Although

world cultures increasingly mix with one another,

and although our powers of expression are greater

than ever before, these are not sound reasons to

abandon the liberal bargain. Restrictions on free

expression do not make societies happier or more

tolerant, but instead make them more fractious

and censorious.

Freedom of expression is looking less and less

like a settled issue. Challenges to it have lately

arisen from the right, from the left, from Muslim

perspectives, and even in the name of protecting

children online. These challenges seem to share an

underlying concern, namely that we must balance

free expression against the psychic hurt that some

expressions will provoke. Often these critiques are

couched in language that draws or appears to

draw, on the law and economics movement. Yet

the cost-benefit analyses advanced to support

restrictions on expression are incomplete, subjective,

and self-contradictory.

Several examples help to illustrate this point,

including flag-desecration laws, hate-speech laws in

the United Kingdom and Canada, U.S. college and

university speech codes, the Cairo Declaration on

Human Rights in Islam, and the Megan Meier

Cyberbullying Prevention Act, currently before the

House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime,

Terrorism, and Homeland Security. Although seemingly

unrelated, these measures rely on a common

assumption, namely that governments should provide

emotional well-being to their citizens, even at

the expense of free expression. This assumption discounts

the emotional well-being of other citizens,

neglects countervailing social considerations, and

hands arbitrary power to governments.

The result is not more happiness, but a race to

the bottom, in which aggrieved groups compete

endlessly with one another for a slice of government

power. Philosopher Robert Nozick once observed

that utilitarianism is hard-pressed to banish what he

termed utility monsters—that is, individuals who take

inordinate satisfaction from acts that displease others.

Arguing about who hurt whose feelings worse,

and about who needs more soothing than whom,

seems designed to discover—or create—utility monsters.

We must not allow this to happen.

Instead, liberal governments have traditionally

relied on a particular bargain, in which freedom of

expression is maintained for all, and in which

emotional satisfaction is a private pursuit, not a

public guarantee. This bargain can extend equally

to all people, and it forms the basis for an enduring

and diverse society, one in which differences

may be aired without fear of reprisal. Although

world cultures increasingly mix with one another,

and although our powers of expression are greater

than ever before, these are not sound reasons to

abandon the liberal bargain. Restrictions on free

expression do not make societies happier or more

tolerant, but instead make them more fractious

and censorious.

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and the managing editor of Cato Unbound, as well as an assistant editor of the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. He earned a Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University.

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