Donald Trump’s expulsion from social media controlled by Big Tech companies and its mob attitude against Parler raise interesting conceptual and practical problems for defenders of freedom.
Two types of arguments have been used to justify censorship of Trump: those that refer to the content of the messages themselves, and those that have to do with the resources used to disseminate them.
Those who accept censorship on the grounds of the allegedly despicable content of the message -incitement to violence, racism, sexism, and so on- seem to assume that the person censoring them will always be someone as reasonable and fair as they think they are. Clearly, this is a very serious error that strips those who argue this way of any reason to oppose censorship of their own speech by someone with power who finds it despicable.
A person’s right to disclose the products of his or her mind cannot come from the ethical or aesthetic assessment of others. To admit otherwise is tantamount to regressing to the state of affairs in the mid-17th century, when Locke and Spinoza advocated religious toleration. It is not idle to recall the words of the latter, which seem to have been written about those who are tolerant only of the ideas they like: “Do to no one what you don’t want done to you, and defend the right of others as your own.”
Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as freedom of speech. In reality, what people have is the right to disseminate their thoughts using their own resources or those voluntarily provided by a third party. If that third party decides, for whatever reason, to suppress anyone’s previously agreed access, he is perfectly within his rights to do so, however unpleasant it may be for the censored or his followers. As this is apparently the situation with Trump and the tech giants, the matter is settled and the battered Donald has no choice but to lick his wounds and find other means to spread his ideas. However, the matter admits some nuances.
There are no characters more incompatible than those of the sovereign and the merchant, as Adam Smith pointed out and, from this simple proposition, he developed his entire doctrine of financing government spending exclusively with taxes and not with income from any productive activity carried out by the government.
Smith was repulsed by the idea of a sovereign turned merchant, but much more repulsed by the real situation of a group of merchants turned government, to whose criticism much of the argumentation of The Wealth of Nations is devoted.
In fact, the fourth book of The Wealth of Nations is a lengthy plea, in general, against mercantilism and, in particular, against the British East India Company, the British incarnation of mercantilist ideals and practices. Created in 1599, this private company, with monopoly privileges granted by the Crown, acted for 275 years as a true state, with army and public administration functions, until its dissolution in 1874. The British colonial empire was created by the merchants of the British East India Company, that’s the plain and simple truth. This is also the case of the famous VOC of the Dutch.
When they reach a certain level of activity, all large companies and all large businesses have always had a mercantilist interest, that is to say, the interest of being a government or of putting the great resources of the state at its service. They all aspire to be like the British. The same happened in the 19th century with coal and railroads, and in the 20th century with oil companies, automobile companies, aviation, etc. This is what has been happening in China for years, with its mixture of political despotism and economic mercantilism.
At the dawn of the 21st century, the big technology companies and their wealthy owners, imbued with the megalomaniacal aspirations to which the owners of great fortunes are prone, aspire to this domination over governments.
The stakes are far higher than Trump’s or anyone else’s freedom of speech on the platforms controlled by Big Tech. Governments getting into big business or big business getting into governments makes it more difficult for democracy to function and for freedom to be exercised. So, while the specific way to address and solve that problem is different in each historical circumstance; the liberal principle of limited government, removed from business and funded by taxes, as neutrally as possible, remains valid.