You and I learned in school that freedom of speech is a fundamental right that all people should enjoy. There’s a practical reason for that. Without freedom of speech, governments and other moneyed interests would be in a position to abuse their power even more than they already do. And obviously voters need uncensored information in order to shape their government. Democracy only works when citizens and the media enjoy freedom of speech.
But what if freedom of speech is only a benefit in a democratic system?
China’s system, as I have written before, reminds me more of a corporate structure, or a meritocracy. In a corporation, you’re generally free to disagree with higher ups if you do it with data, and in a professional manner. Usually you need to go through proper channels, but dissent is generally allowed, and sometimes actively encouraged. If you’re a jerk about your disagreement with your superiors, or you don’t have persuasive data to back up position, you could get fired. But that’s a stupidity issue, not a freedom issue.
China’s leadership is packed with engineers and lawyers by training. I imagine that like any corporation, they appreciate the value of information when presented in a professional manner, and through proper channels. Unlike elected politicians, managers in a meritocracy are free to change position as new or better data emerges. The advantage of having only one political party is that everyone is on the same team. And if effectiveness is the goal, which apparently it is in China, I assume that new data is generally welcome.
An American politician is likely to lose his next election if he “flip flops” on an issue, even if the reason for the change is that new information has emerged. In that environment, practical politicians simply take the position that their party has established, confident that the free media will present both sides of every argument regardless of where the data leads. A free press has the perverse effect of increasing the volume of information while simultaneously reducing its usefulness.
A free press is also a huge distraction. I would imagine that at least half of all the time and effort our elected officials put into their jobs has something to do with managing the media. Compare that to a corporate system in which managers are also concerned with image, but they focus most of their energy on getting the job done. I imagine that Chinese leaders have a similar freedom to act in accordance with data. And I imagine they spend little or no time worrying about how the media will treat them, since they control it.
What about the jailing of dissidents in China? On a human level, it certainly feels wrong to imprison someone simply for speaking out. It feels even more wrong when the dissident’s only goal is to improve the lives of his or her fellow citizens. And it seems pure evil if the dissident has valid criticisms.
But what if the dissidents themselves are the ones who have it wrong? Suppose a dissident is stirring up public emotions in a direction that could be detrimental to the interests of a billion fellow citizens? Suppose, for example, the dissident is agitating for freedom of speech, a right that would be fitting for a democracy, but would be nothing but trouble – perhaps serious trouble – in the Chinese system. In that case, should the Chinese leadership value the freedom of this one individual over the wellbeing of a billion others? What would Spock say?
I’d like to be perfectly clear that I know almost nothing about the Chinese system, and absolutely nothing about any particular dissidents. My emotional reaction is that no one should be in jail for voicing an opinion. But the rational side of me doesn’t have any data to support the notion that the Chinese people would be better off with complete freedom of speech, especially since we know that free speech encourages leaders to ignore data.
America has freedom of speech. China has freedom of data. Where do you place your bet?