Gongol.com Archives: June 2024

Brian Gongol

June 27, 2024

The United States of America Everyone's got an opinion

In the scheme of human development, the First Amendment is a triumph. It wasn't obvious to the world then that humans possessed an intrinsic right to air their thoughts in the forms of speech, print, or protest. Nor is it sufficiently obvious to the world now; some reputable indicators have shown the balance of freedom in retreat for two decades worldwide. ■ Yet even James Madison, contributing author of and advocate for the Constitution, recognized that good things could often be imperfect: "[T]he purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the greater, not the perfect, good; and that in every political institution, a power to advance the public happiness involves a discretion which may be misapplied and abused." ■ One "alloy" of the First Amendment is that it artificially subsidizes a surplus of speech: Particularly, it encourages the over-production of speech about politics. Not about ideas, per se, but about contests and figures -- the "horse race", above all. ■ Other subjects are often even more important. Science and technology, economics, international relations, and many others can be far more important. But they are complex and require expertise. They rarely lend themselves to the kinds of "team" alignments without which it can be hard to get audiences interested. ■ Meanwhile, there are often small but intensely interested parties who have strong incentives to constrain the boundaries of discussion. Experts, gatekeepers, public relations representatives, activists, and others are ready to pounce in the name of accuracy, fairness, or simple self-interest. Some even get litigious. ■ With horse-race politics, though, we recognize and respect a nearly unassailable right to speculate, criticize, and even fabricate. Everyone can have an opinion, nearly any opinion is legally safe to declare, and no special knowledge is required to either start the discussion or to join it. Public figures make for easy caricatures and the aspect of team rivalry is easy to spur. ■ That second-order consequence of over-supplying mostly meaningless content is not an argument for diminishing the First Amendment, of course. But it's vital to notice the consequences. A tendency towards maximum freedom for political speech can leave the public square overstuffed with the discoursive equivalent of empty calories -- and a bit light on the "vegetables" of issues away from politics.

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