It is a longstanding legal principle that motives are irrelevant to criminal liability. Were the murderers from Paris still alive, they would now face the legal consequences of their action. In this particular case, however, their motives have been subject to a public discussion. Religious groups, including Muslim associations and the Catholic Church, want their symbols to be protected from insult and satirical wit. Many claimed: “I am not Charlie!” because they felt that Charlie Hebdo had overstepped a red line and had insulted religious feelings.
The ensuing discussion about the limits of freedom created a polarization of the public discourse that is largely artificial because it is generally understood that freedom comes with individual responsibility. People generally engage each other with responsibility and respect and therefore the world’s religions do co-exist reasonably well. According to available statistics, there are about 2.2 billion Christians, 1.8 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus and about 1 billion non-religious, agnostic or religiously unaffiliated people in the world. All religions basically preach peace and harmony. Conflict and violence occur only when instigated by certain interest groups, in particular those seeking influence in society. Indonesia provides a sad list of incidences that prove this point.
If we do, however, approve of limits to the freedom of expression, we do not primarily protect religious feelings but we empower those who set and enforce those limiting standards and regulations. It could either be government agencies, which have no mandate to regulate morality in society, or it could be particular interest groups that have never been properly mandated by the people at all.
Besides, the debate about limiting the freedom of expression has accidentally blurred the more important question about its necessity. Free speech is not just an option among others. It is not just a beautiful dream of some idealists. Instead, the freedom of expression is a precondition for overcoming poverty and for the creation of wealth in society because it is the key driver for the diffusion of technology and ideas in the world.
The individual freedom of expression and the liberation of civil society have made the world a better place. During the last century global average life expectancy increased from around 31 years in 1900 to 66 years by 2000. Global infant mortality went down by 75%. Average literacy improved from 25% to 80% of the world population. The average number of years an adult spent in school and university increased from around 2 years to above 7 years.
These improvements were not just brought about by the development of new tools and practices. Instead, human life has become so much better because of the free exchange of ideas and technologies. Three philosophers of the European enlightenment shall be mentioned here because they were instrumental in arguing the case. Immanuel Kant called for a free exchange of ideas, David Hume identified this free exchange as a precondition for wealth creation, and Adam Ferguson claimed that wealth was a result of uncoordinated human action.
Kant answered the question: “What is Enlightenment?” (1784) by calling for a free public discourse: “Now I hear the cry from all sides: "Do not argue!" The officer says: "Do not argue - drill!" The tax collector: "Do not argue - pay!" The pastor: "Do not argue - believe!" (…) I reply: the public use of one's reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.”
David Hume’s “Political Discourses” (1752) thought of technology as ideas embodied in products, laws and customs. The more those ideas were disseminated publicly, and the more technologies were being transferred in the market place, the better were the chances of wealth creation. Here he saw “perhaps the chief advantage that arises from commerce with strangers”.
In his “Essay on the History of Civil Society” (1782) Adam Ferguson addressed our human inability to foresee all consequences of our action and to therefore plan for the success of our nations. Instead, our success relies on the actions of many and does not follow an individual design: “Every step and every movement (…) are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but no the execution of any human design.”
According to these three philosophers the freedom to express and to analyze ideas leads to the transfer of technologies, which, in turn, lead to the creation of wealth that does not follow any preconceived plan but is a result of human action. Conservatives and socialists seek to interfere in this process for different reasons but they fail to acknowledge the moral imperative of freedom. Even the People’s Republic of China depended on the free exchange of ideas and technologies for its economic success.
More than two centuries after the ground rules for progress and wealth creation have been spelled out, classical liberals are still fighting against their opponents. In 1967, Friedrich Hayek published his essay on “The Results of Human Action but Not of Human Design”. He deliberately repeated Ferguson’s words to call for a spontaneous order that creates better results than the most comprehensive development plan.
The freedom of ideas, the free exchange of technologies, and the benefits of a spontaneous order remain at the core of the classical liberal agenda. Liberals have moved on to include websites, blogs, facebook, twitter and youtube when disseminating classical liberal ideas. Empowered by new technologies they use them to make themselves heard and relevant!
The freedom of expression does not just stand for openness and tolerance but it is a necessity for innovation and progress. The competition of technologies is not just an option but instead a necessity to inspire creativity and advancement. The development of wealth does not follow a grand design but depends on the interaction of free individuals.