Egypt, preference falsification, and free speech
Feb 3, 2011
3 minute read

The ordinary argument for freedom of speech typically follows one of two patterns. First, some people argue that in a free society, the best ideas rise to the top. Second, some people (often the same people) argue that it’s morally imperative that people have freedom of conscience. Recent events in Egypt and the leading economic model of explaining them give us a third line of reasoning to defend freedom of speech.

Timur Kuran’s 1989 Public Choice article “Sparks and Prairie Fires” argues that unanticipated revolutions are the result of what he calls “preference falsification.” When ordinary citizens get utility from publicly expressing support for the status quo, overall publicly expressed sentiment will strongly diverge from overall private sentiment. That is, most citizens will deny their true preferences and publicly support the status quo. As a result, relatively small shocks can cause expected public sentiment to swing wildly away from the status quo. When expected public sentiment swings wildly, so does expressed public sentiment, and you get a revolution.

A crucial, explicit assumption in Kuran’s article is that governments do not have time to adapt to the wild swings in sentiment. No matter what Mubarak offers the Egyptians, no one believes that he will be able to change enough quickly enough to satisfy the new public sentiment. Even if he were willing to give in to every substantive demand made of him, promises to do so would not be credible.

This gives us a strong argument for freedom of political speech. When the divergence between expressed public sentiment and true private sentiment is minimized, a political regime will be at its most stable. When there is a change in private sentiment, if the change is expressed publicly, then the regime can have time to gradually adapt to keep its actions in line with what its citizens demand, minimizing the likelihood of a revolution.

It’s worth reviewing some of the ways that freedom of political speech is impaired in the United States today. First, the Smith Act makes it a federal crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the US government. Though to my knowledge there have not been any prosecutions for violating this provision of the Smith Act in recent decades, this law, which was used to support McCarthyism, is still on the books. It’s likely that people think it would be destabilizing to repeal this section of the Smith Act, but the argument above suggests the contrary.

Second, there are cultural impairments to some political speech. Many people face social pressure to hew to a particular political line. This is unfortunate and perhaps inevitable, though to the extent that each of us can be more tolerant, that would ameliorate the situation.

Third, in light of the cultural obstacles to true freedom of political speech, it’s regrettable that the US government does not recognize a right to anonymous political speech. In the Citizens United case, only Justice Thomas wrote in favor of the right of groups to produce political material without disclosing their donors.

I don’t mean to suggest that the US is on the verge of an Egypt-style revolution due to its suppression of political speech, but nevertheless, in the long run, an open society is a stable society. Perhaps one reason that the American regime has lasted as long as it has is its tradition of relatively free speech. Now is as good a time as any to improve on that tradition.