David R. Henderson  

Martin Wolf on Freedom of the Press

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[Libertarianism] is hopeless intellectually, because the values people hold are many and divergent and some of these values do not merely allow, but demand, government protection of weak, vulnerable or unfortunate people. Moreover, such values are not "wrong". The reality is that people hold many, often incompatible, core values. Libertarians argue that the only relevant wrong is coercion by the state. Others disagree and are entitled to do so. Because government must protect weak and vulnerable people, it cannot trust them to judge ideas. Therefore government must judge ideas for them. Government must protect us against externalities and must provide information. One of the biggest areas of externalities is in ideas. If a Karl Marx or and Adolf Hitler advocates certain ideas and those ideas take hold, millions of innocent people will die. That's why government must subsidize education and make sure that certain ideas are not taught. Truth standards for the press, enforced by government, are a way to protect people against the carelessness or malevolence of others or (more controversially) themselves. All these, then, are legitimate protective measures.
The above is a mix of arguments and claims that Martin Wolf of the Financial Times made and arguments and claims that he didn't make. What he argued for was a great deal of government restriction on people's freedom. What he didn't argue for is a great deal of government intrusion on freedom of the press. But I wove together his arguments for reducing certain freedoms with very similar arguments for reducing freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and, indeed, freedom of thought. The externality issues here seem just as huge.

I'm guessing that he wouldn't advocate such restrictions on freedom of the press, speech, or thought. But why wouldn't he? I would love to hear his answer.


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CATEGORIES: Regulation



COMMENTS (9 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

The argument is a mess. For example, I doubt that this is actually true, that there are people who demand "government protection of weak, vulnerable or unfortunate people." What people demand is protection of weak, vulnerable or unfortunate people, and many buy the argument that government best provides these. The libertarian argument is that that is not the case. If libertarians can prove this to be the case, how many would continue to insist on government solutions? I don't doubt there would still be a few who would do so because they are interested in power rather than actually providing these services, but that would be a significant minority.

I also find it hillarious that he thinks that the state would educate us against statism.

Sam writes:

I like Wolf. But his argument is quite stupid. Here is Wolf's argument:

"[Libertarianism] is hopeless intellectually, because the values people hold are many and divergent and some of these values do not merely allow, but demand, government protection of weak, vulnerable or unfortunate people. Moreover, such values are not “wrong”. The reality is that people hold many, often incompatible, core values. Libertarians argue that the only relevant wrong is coercion by the state. Others disagree and are entitled to do so."

Notice that this is an argument against all moral positions. Socialism is hopeless intellectually because some people are libertarians. Liberal democracy is hopeless intellectually because some people are fascists.

See the problem here?

What Wolf is actually saying is other values are equally or better justified than libertarian values. But of course he gives no argument for this conclusion.

Maurizio writes:

His argument is fallacious because it assumes that government can be trusted to do what he says. From "government SHOULD do such and such" it does not follow that "government CAN do such and such".

fundamentalist writes:

It just shows Wolf's ignorance of libertarianism, the only system that protects the "weak, vulnerable or unfortunate people." The state certainly doesn't and never has.

fundamentalist writes:

PS, who will protect us from the state? The state has murdered more people in history than any institution.

Matt writes:

Others disagree and are entitled to do so? What does Wolf mean by this? Isn't that just another way of saying that people have the right to take away others rights?

Doc Merlin writes:

He wouldn't argue for restrictions on the press, because he is a member of the press and has large personal benefit in being able to write what he wants.

Peter G. Klein writes:

I'm guessing Wolf doesn't know Coase's famous "The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas" (1974) and, if he did, wouldn't recognize the irony.

Eric Hosemann writes:

The coup de grace is especially cringe-worthy:

"The ancient Athenians called someone who had a purely private life “idiotes”. This is, of course, the origin of our word “idiot”."

I challenge Wolf to provide one example of a person who is leading or who has led a "purely private life." There is no such thing as a "purely private life," and Wolf's belief in it erodes his premise that certain "protections" are either government provided or not provided at all.

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