Liberty and Freedom of the Press


How annoying is it that journalists scream bloody murder whenever anyone goes near their liberty to scribble on endlessly about anything they like, in any form they prefer, with whatever illustrations they favor, but have no compunction about calling for government to meddle in everyone else's profession? Prior restraint is forbidden by law where the press is concerned but not where all the other professions are. Rather unfair, don't you think?

We all know that when freedom of the press is respected and protected, it means that not just your local paper or The New York Times but also yellow journalism, Hustler Magazine and other filthy stuff is safe from government intrusion. Yet, if a journalist is concerned that maybe something the government does is getting close to censorship, we do not accuse him of trying merely to indulge in reading pornography. Freedom of the press is supposed to be a good thing, even if Hustler gets to enjoy it too. Moreover, it would be insulting to accuse all those who believe in this variety of human liberty that all they are after is to support Hustler and similar sleazy publications.

Now compare this to when champions of economic liberty make their case. What are they accused of? Mostly of simply wishing to unleash greed and avarice throughout the marketplace, that's what. Any effort to keep government out of the economic lives of people is written of by many supporters of government intervention and regulation as simply a way to open the door for big business to pursue unlimited, obscene profits. They charge defenders with wanting only to rationalize away such greed.

As someone who has written a thing or two in defense of the free market economic system, I have experienced this countless times. People all over the landscape'-in the academy, letter writers in newspapers, authors of critical books and reviewers'-insist that I am simply serving the interest of the rich. Quite a few believe that they can fully explain my support of capitalism by reference to my own personal interest in accumulating limitless capital. They do this without ever inquiring about my life, my wealth, my earnings, my investments or my land holdings. They just know that I must be advocating these ideas because of the vested interest that drives me.

But then are we to say that all defenders of the free press mean only to unleash everything nasty people can produce and create once their liberty is secured? It's never about freedom, then, only about serving some personal agenda, usually a sleazy one at that!?

Balderdash. The critics of individual liberty are not only cynics, believing that when men and women are free, they are hell bent on doing something bad, such as simply indulging their greed. They also attempt to avoid, by way of their ploy, the need to actually defend their position. Having dismissed their opponents as intent on nothing more reputable than the fostering of greed and other vices, it no longer needs to be defended that government's interference in economic matters is something worthwhile, helpful, just. No, by besmirching the motives of champions of liberty, their case stands proven by default.

This was actually how Karl Marx and his many followers in colleges and universities have gone about opposing capitalism'-they accused all its defenders of merely pleading the case of the rich, of being in the pockets of the capitalist class. Having thus indicted their integrity, who needed to bother with actually showing that supporters of capitalism, such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Locke, Frederick Bastiat and the rest didn't have a good case. Having belittled them, arguments against them were superfluous.

But the ploy will not wash, and as soon as someone tries to use it, it should be noted point blank that it carries no real conviction. Once this is made clear, perhaps a real argument will ensue about whether a free society is superior to one with all kinds of government meddling.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.