Free speech is modern society’s last and greatest bulwark against tyranny. It is with good reason that in the United States the First Amendment is spoken of with a certain amount of reverence. The right of an individual to express beliefs and ideas on any topic and in any area of human endeavor without obstruction is necessary to the progress of humanity and arises directly from his nature as a human being. As an animal whose rational faculty long ago surpassed his instincts, man must think in order to survive. He must use his faculty of reason to solve the problems of his existence, from making fire and building a hut to curing disase and extracting resources from the earth to use as his fuel. The more clearly he thinks, the more fruitful his work and the better his life becomes. And as a contractual animal who deals with others via exchange, man gains immense value from the ability to freely exchange ideas with those around him. Thus, the promotion and defense of his freedom of speech is fundamental to the promotion and defense of human life itself.
I say all of that so that my intentions are clear when I propose the following: a surplus of opinion is diminishing the quality of thought and discussion regarding some of the most important issues in modern American society. As you might infer, I don’t mean to suggest that any views should be silenced or that the freedom to express opinion should be stifled by any means. There is, however, a strong case to be made for greater self-restraint. We need to remember how and when to say, with head held high and not an ounce of shame, “I don’t know.”
Unfortunately, there are strong cultural forces in today’s world that make this more difficult. Though as a millennial I generally find myself defending social media and modern technology against the accusations of older generations who often try to brand it for everything from the dissolution of family ties to school shootings and psychological disorders, in this case the glove seems to fit. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have given everyone the kind of audience once reserved for those who had proven themselves knowledgeable and worthy of publication. Cable news does little to counter this culture, regularly featuring commentary by people who have little more expertise on the topics discussed than the people watching at home.
Thus, with credentials obscured and readers/viewers aplenty, the incentive to opine on every news story that comes to pass rises considerably and the cost of mass-distributing unqualified views plummets. Aggravating the problem is an impersonal online environment in which a precious few individuals are willing to back down from their initial stances, even when presented with a mountain of contrary evidence, and challenging such views only has the effect of ratcheting up the dispute until no party can find a ladder down from some very high horses.
The result: a surplus of opinion. In politics, the arts, natural sciences, and economics, strongly held views appear to be based on the shakiest of foundations. This is not to say that individually they are all wrong, nor to discourage people from feeling strongly about issues that affect their lives and their country, and it is certainly not to endorse a skeptical view about truth being unknowable and chronic uncertainty being man’s natural state. It is, however, to encourage a measure of introspection that defies the media (and social media) environment in which we live today. It is to ask that before vehemently asserting an opinion on, say, nuclear disarmament, vaccines, banking regulations, the effects of immigration on the American economy, the nature of remissions and international monetary flows, or the question of whether the universe is expanding or contracting, we each individually stop for a moment and acknowledge both how much we know and how much we don’t know on a given topic.
Perhaps I am particularly concerned with this modern phenomenon because of its prevalence on issues in my own field, economics. Economist Murray Rothbard once said, “It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.” I venture to guess that scientists, social or natural, of many stripes would happily supplant “economics” in that passage with their own field.
Without succumbing to arguments from or appeals to authority, we should acknowledge that there are individuals who have spent their whole lives and careers studying exactly the issue on which we are currently opining and that while they might still be completely wrong, if we are to argue against them we should at least base our arguments in some basic amount of knowledge or (miracles happen) acknowledge the limits of our understanding at the outset of a conversation and be willing to learn from those with whom we disagree. What’s more: it is not out of respect for those others that we should do so, but out of selfish regard for our own understanding and the issues that we care about. If we do not, how interested can we really claim to be in the truth?
I say all of this merely to note the problem and the best answer available to us at the moment. I am well aware of what a pipe dream it is to propose a solution to a widespread social phenomenon that depends entirely on human introspection, self-awareness, and conscientiousness. The incentives favor, and by all accounts will continue to favor, a growing media and social media environment in which the act of expressing an opinion is more prized than the objective quality of the opinion itself. Other institutional arrangements that could improve the average quality of opinions expressed have their limits. Betting markets offer one solution, but they only meaningfully improve the thinking of those who consent to the bets. A social media platform that charged people for each opinion expressed would likely enjoy a better average quality of discussion but would be unlikely to get very far. So what’s the solution? I’ll be the first to say: I don’t know.