What is freedom?
Thesis: To be free, the individual must not only be free from legislation that interferes with their autonomy over themselves; they must also be free from certain forms of social coercion, if necessary by legislating against such social coercion.
To the libertarian, freedom means freedom from legislative control, or governmental control. This is, of course, a very important aspect to freedom. However, I argue that it is only one aspect to being free. I will address this perspective first. However, there are also, ironically, democrats/leftists who argue essentially the same – and I wish to argue against their perspective, as well.
Let us begin with the libertarian side. Now, I am an individualist. I believe the individual should be autonomous over themselves, and that we should strive to help each individual to improve and advance themselves as much as possible, or to give them the opportunity to do so. However, this cannot mean simply saying that the government is to be disallowed from infringing upon individual freedoms. That is an important part of freedom, yes, but it really cannot be the entirety of it. Okay, yes, it could be part of a self-consistent philosophy – but not a philosophy of freedom for the individual.
The problem is that freedom from government, or legislative, interference, is merely one part of individual freedom. In fact, governmental interference is merely one type of social coercion. Let us consider an illustration of another type. Suppose that an homosexual person is living in a purely libertarian society. Suppose also that this society is filled with conservative christians and muslims, who decide that they will refuse to do business with this person. If every other person in the society refuses to do business with them, they will be unable to work or buy food or shelter, and will starve to death.
I have heard people defend this, by saying that freedom does not mean freedom from consequences, only from legislation. Which is certainly a point of view. However, legislated consequences are just one form of consequences. After all, anyone can break the law; they merely may face consequences from the police and the courts. So why should we say society cannot impose consequences via legislation, police, and courts, but can impose consequences by making it impossible for an individual to survive?
Such a thing does not necessarily even require a large percentage of society to shun the individual. It can even enable coercion that is, in theory, illegal. For example, forced marriages are illegal in many western nations. However, in practice, if the family of a person controls their source of income, they can impose heavy social coercion on that person by threatening to cut off their ability to survive.
What I am proposing, then, is that certain forms of social coercion should be banned by the government. I am not proposing that anyone should be required to do anything in the private lives that they do not wish to do. To privately shun a person is of course the prerogative of the individual. However, I do strongly believe that businesses should be required to provide their goods and services without prejudice, and to employ people without prejudice. Of course, the business owner is not required to like or socialize with these people outside of a business context. Therefore, the owner’s individual autonomy over himself is not affected; only his business is affected.
In fact, this is required in some ways in the US. For example, landlords with large apartment complexes are not allowed to be prejudiced against clients (tenants) on ethnic or religious grounds. I strongly support this. This goes back to something which I have talked about before: we should differentiate between an individual’s private activity and private goods, and the individual using their goods as business investments (https://lokijotunn.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/investors-and-welfare-queens/). But I think it does not go far enough. And one of the main areas in which it does not go far enough is in the defence of free speech.
Many people defend the right of social media platforms to ban users for ‘speech crime.’ The argument is that they are not the government, so it is perfectly fine for them to engage in censorship. I do not agree. A social media platform is a business that provides a service, namely, allowing people to make posts. As such, it ought to be required to provide that service to people without prejudice on the basis of religious or political or social opinions held or expressed by those people, just as a landlord must rent to such people and just as a grocer must sell to such people (or if they aren’t required to do so, they ought to be). The right to refuse business services should be quite restricted.
Of course, that does not mean other users should be disallowed from blocking those users with whom they disagree. They have every right to do so. However, I do not think that the platform as an whole should be permitted to refuse to offer their services on such prejudicial grounds. Imagine if the phone company were allowed to cut off any conversations which they found offensive. This would be an act of censorship and an affront to free communication, because the whole function of the phone system is to provide a means of communication to everyone. Of course, nobody has to answer the phone or stay on the phone, but the phone company should not be allowed to decide who gets to call whom or what they get to say. Likewise, social media on the internet should be considered a public means of discourse, and not allowed to engage in censorship. Similarly, a hall that rents itself out should not be allowed to deny a group from using its space for a meeting, even if the owners do not agree with or like that group. Public forums of communication should not be allowed to engage in censorship any more than the government should be.
Indeed, I believe that to be really free, free speech must be free not only from legislation, but also from certain social consequences, such as which business services are provided to the speaker. Speech that is not free of business consequences is not really free speech.
Note that this does not mean that a company which employs a person, as, say, an analyst, might not fire that person if their views contradict the company’s. For example, there was a woman whose name is Yassim or something like that, who appeared on ABC with factually inaccurate and incredibly dangerous statements about sharia. I would have no problem with her being fired (in fact I believe she ought to be fired), because she is an employee whose job is to provide opinion analysis. I would object to her being banned from a social media platform where she is the client, however, no matter how disgusting and dangerous I find her opinions and statements.
Of course, there are areas that remain a bit grey. For example, should a cake maker be required to make a cake with a message with which they utterly disagree? I would lean towards no, because, likewise, a book publisher should not be required to publish a book with which they fundamentally disagree. Social media services differ, however, in that they are open platforms for the exchange of ideas, and therefore should not be allowed to vet their customers for thought crime, any more than the phone company should be allowed to cut off any calls wherein ideas are expressed with which the phone company disagrees.
To summarize this point on free speech: Nobody has to listen, but no public means of communication should be allowed to engage in censorship against free speech any more than we should allow the government to censor free speech. I hold that this is perfectly consistent with the principles of individual autonomy with restrictions on social coercion, as outlined above.