Thursday, November 24, 2011

Freedom of Speech and Keeping Secrets

A few days ago the African National Congress – ruling party in the South African government – passed a ‘Protection of Information’ act that is patently aimed at protecting the corruption of ANC politicians from being exposed. This makes the legal watching and reporting on government behavior almost impossible. They of course say it’s necessary because important state secrets are vulnerable. No one outside the ANC thinks this is true. Indeed it’s difficult to imagine that the South African state needs to keep anything secret at all. The justification for keeping secrets is to gain an advantage over a competitor or enemy and to prevent them from gaining an advantage over you. Another reason is that you are up to something that is likely to be frowned upon. Now of course when at war a whole country stands to gain or lose an advantage or might be embarrassed, but there is no prospect of being at war and the state is a monopoly and has no competitors in South Africa. If there is no reason to fear foreigners it seems suspiciously like the state needs to keep secrets because it has reason to fear the opinion of the people themselves.

Another thing the ANC wants to do is have a media tribunal because according to them the press tends to publish a lot of lies or misinformation about politicians and then does a very bad job of retracting allegations when they prove to be false. This is probably partially true, although the ANC exaggerates the extent of it or illegitimately views an alternative interpretation to their preferred one to be false. The press has however also published a lot of embarrassing truths (or legitimate alternative understandings) about politicians. The proposed body will no doubt squash these too and they shouldn’t be allowed to.

Freedom of speech and press freedom are two fairly central principles in most democracies. However most of the population thinks that at least one viewpoint shouldn’t be allowed to be aired in public so the principle of freedom of speech generally prevails in spite of the will of the people rather than because of it. Does that mean freedom of speech or press freedom is not such a wise idea?

I ran this issue through the Smart Vote. The General Social Survey has 6 questions relating to whether various groups should be allowed to air their views in the USA. These are – racists, homosexuals, militarists, communists, anti-religionists and Muslim clerics preaching hatred of the US. For each of the first 5 about one third of the population wants to see them kept quiet and for the last more than half do. I had a look at the ratio of smart to stupid people who support allowing each of these groups to speak. As you can see from the graph below the ratio for each issue is always very high – above 150. Indeed the above 120 IQ group came close to full support on many issues whereas only a minority of the below 85 IQ group ever supported allowing any of them to speak. The graph entitled “All” refers to allowing all of the first 5 groups to speak i.e. no exceptions. [The Muslim cleric question wasn’t included because it has only been asked recently.] As you can see the Smart Vote on the more radical “All” category is especially strong – as is allowing hate speech by Muslim clerics.



Of course this may simply reflect special interests or biases that just happen to align with IQ. I ran some logistic regressions to control for a variety of groups that may have special interests. The + and – below refer to the strength of the independent relationship of the independent variable to the dependent variable i.e. the group allowed to speak.



As should be plain IQ is still very strongly related to allowing any of these groups to speak even after controlling for these other factors. Being well educated, wealthier, younger, white or liberal predisposes one to support free speech more readily. On most questions, except homosexuality, males are also more prone to support free speech. Note also that there is a trend toward greater support for free speech in recent times.

On a few question I could find the group mentioned in the GSS. You can see the table of the regression that includes the group membership (under “Interest”) below. For Homosexuals the variable was “Sexual Orientation”, for Communism it was “Opinion of Communism” and for Anti-religionists it was “Confidence in Existence of God”.



Also the racist question already included a direct interest group i.e. race. Of the four where I was able to find a group three of the groups were clearly more in favor of their interests being aired or banned (for racism and atheism). For the homosexuals they are universally in favor of being able to have their say but the numbers of cases are too low to show statistical significance. Smart blacks are in favor of allowing racists their say. Smart anti-communists and strong believers in God support allowing communists or vocal atheists to argue their points. Note that higher IQ still favors allowing free speech.

What this means is that even among people who are conservatives that think communism is the worst possible system the brighter they are the more they think communists should be allowed to speak i.e. the more they support the airing of a view they hate. Alternatively among liberals who don’t think communism is necessarily bad the more stupid are more inclined to still deny communists a voice i.e. to restrict even those they don’t necessarily regard as a threat.

The Smart Vote on allowing free speech, especially where the view might be offensive or disturbing, is particularly strong. Disallowing anyone to make the case for something they believe in or hold dear is plainly stupid – even if a majority of the population can’t see that.

Now what about state secrets? Below is a table where I list a number of relevant questions and what the Smart Vote and Stupid Vote is for that question. The Stupid Vote is simply the alternative with the lowest ratio of high IQ to low IQ opinion.





On government maintaining secrets the intelligent view is that they either probably should or probably shouldn’t. Nowhere is intelligent opinion an unequivocal yes. That is however the stupid opinion on intelligence budgets, military technology and domestic terrorism. On military operations the stupid view is to definitely not keep them secret. So in general it is probably wise for the state to avoid making secrecy the default policy. The default should rather be openness unless there is a very good reason e.g. where the element of surprise is crucial – like military operations. The Smart Vote is unsure whether the state overdoes secrecy but it is clearly dumb to think it’s unlikely.

It is the Smart Vote to allow the publication of leaked government plans e.g. for the economy.

Since it’s wise to think that when government makes mistakes the official concerned won’t be corrected there should be some means for the public to know about it and act on it themselves.

In any case it’s intelligent for citizens to keep a close watch on government (and stupid not to) and to engage in civil disobedience if necessary. It’s also intelligent to allow a lot of leeway for citizens to protest against their government and stupid to disallow it – except for physical damage. Being allowed to publish anti-government protests is part of that.

Finally although the Smart Vote is for some method of ensuring media responsibility it is not in favor of the state disallowing publication – even when the price is the violation of the privacy of politicians.

In sum, the wise allow everyone to argue their case – no matter who it offends or disturbs. There is an intelligent case to be made for some state secrets but secrecy should not be the default, it should be the exception. States may well be overdoing secrecy and it is wise to enable citizens to watch the state and protest (and even resist) if necessary. It’s wiser for the press to be free to publish leaked state plans and the doings of politicians, even if this is sometimes unfair. It would be downright stupid for a state to make everything a secret or a crime to expose its activities or misbehaving functionaries.

In terms of serving the country they are meant to govern the ANC have taken a stupid step. The only reason I can see to justify it is that they are up to something that can’t be done unless the public is kept in the dark. This must mean that they want to do things that won’t be in the interest of the public. If so then they are no longer serving the country but using the country to serve themselves. It will come to bit them eventually but how long will the country have to suffer before they wake up to the Smart Vote?

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