One of the more depressing things about public policy is that among the most effective roles that governments, corporations and private individuals can play is that of the censor. It’s right up there with road building and cash transfers on the list of things even a halfway competent state can pull off if wants to — and in most advanced economies, you don’t even have to be a state to do it well.

If you have the money, the means and the right legal framework, you can eradicate awkward stories about criminal allegations against you under the guise of the right to privacy. And, more dispiritingly still, states are getting better, not worse, at censoring and impeding the free flow of information in the digital age.

How should advocates of free speech respond? One response is just to give up on it. After all, almost all effective organisations place some limitations on the free speech of their members or employees.

It is right and reasonable for businesses or other organisations to impose some restrictions on what their staff or members say. It’s disastrous for internal cohesion, morale and the bottom line if employees are able to slag off the product or boost the competition.

For states, too, censorship scratches itches that other policy levers can’t. If you want to stem the tide of “misinformation”, say, then the best and most effective way to do it is simply to criminalise it.

The effectiveness of censorship has blindsided some liberals, however. It has led to assumptions about the durability of dictatorships and illiberal regimes that, thanks in part to the ability of censorship to smother dissent and mould public opinion, have proved more enduring than many had hoped.

The power of the censor to stop an idea dead in its tracks has caused others to look for ways in which free speech can provide the same benefits. One of the most popular, and most wrong-headed, is the concept of a “marketplace of ideas”. This is the notion that the free flow of speech and debate leads to competition between duelling philosophies, with the best eventually winning out.

There are numerous problems with this. The biggest is that all the data we have suggests that people do not treat ideas in the same way they do other goods.

No one with a dodgy kitchen installation sets out to find reasons why their leaky taps, ill-fitting draws or ugly wooden tops are actually top-of-the-range. But most of us do look out for information that validates our previously held opinions.

Look at the way liberal democracies pursue wildly divergent policy approaches, even in areas where, to the extent that we can truly say we “know” anything, we “know” what works. The democratic world is not converging upon Finnish education standards, UK race relations or France’s healthcare model.

But the biggest problem with the so-called marketplace of ideas is that it is an attempt to pretend that trade-offs don’t exist and to argue that you can have the benefits of censorship and the benefits of free speech. The reality is that you can’t have both.

With a handful of exceptions, there is no clear red line between “misinformation” and what will later be accepted as “truth”. You can criminalise the denial of past atrocities such as the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, but doing so does not provide you any meaningful inoculation against future disinformation.

The distinction between the right to say “thalidomide is bad for your baby”, “don’t take that particular antimalarial drug” and “don’t give your child the MMR vaccine” is not obvious.

It’s not in the supposed marketplace of ideas that free speech comes into its own: free speech will always carry with it the risk of spreading misinformation, just as liberal democracies always live with the risk of electing leaders who will bring about their destruction.

What really discredits bad ideas is their implementation. In the UK, pro-European arguments have all but quit the field, but the reality of the country’s exit from the EU has driven up pro-rejoin sentiment anyway. And in China, opposition to the ruling party carries a heavy toll, but the failures of Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy have contributed to its reversal.

It’s precisely the ability to dissent freely and to correct mistakes, rather than the supposed ability of liberal democracies to avoid mistakes in the first place, that makes free speech invaluable — not a bad analogy about marketplaces.

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