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You Don't Have to 'Like' Everything on Facebook

You Don't Have to 'Like' Everything on Facebook

Dear Reader —

Our nation is unusually liberal when it comes to free speech. But that right, by the Constitution’s terms, is secured only against the government. That means that while the government cannot restrict citizens’ speech, save for exceptional circumstances, private citizens can — and do.

Nevertheless, there is in our country what you might call a cultural tradition of free speech, which goes beyond what the Constitution requires. The right to express oneself freely has long been taken as essential to American democratic culture so that debates about free speech quickly transcend matters of constitutional interpretation, cutting to the heart of our basic understanding of and disagreements about the identity of our political community. The recent controversy surrounding Facebook is a case in point. 

As a private enterprise, Facebook is not obligated to enforce the same kinds of free-speech standards as public institutions or governmental entities. Nevertheless, as Mark Zuckerberg himself admits, “Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company,” with its own policies and professed commitment to the common good — including freedom of expression. 

Yet, as Clara Hendrickson points out, there is a contradiction at the heart of Facebook’s self-understanding. On the one hand, it seeks to promote a “marketplaces of ideas” by providing what Zuckerberg calls a “platform for all ideas.” On the other hand, though, “Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community” in the onward march of human “progress.” It is in defense of this “community” that Facebook demands a minimum of civility and comity by, for example, policing hate speech. From this perspective, Facebook is not a neutral platform at all but instead aspires to a particular kind of moral community.

Of course, Facebook is a far cry from comity, not least because of the well-known incivility on display in this “community” of more than 2 billion people. This stems, according to Hendrickson, from Facebook’s inconsistent self-understanding: a “platform for all ideas” invites neither civility nor comity but discord and factionalism. “Facebook has sold a myth of ever greater connection yielding ever greater cooperation,” as Hendrickson aptly puts it. Basically, Facebook wants it both ways: a liberality of expression that reflects the best of our First Amendment tradition and a type of harmony that is incompatible with that tradition. Facebook wants, if you like, to have its free-speech cake and regulate it, too.

Hendrickson proposes instead embracing the idea that a marketplace of ideas has sometimes untoward consequences. Here, she notes, our constitutional heritage is instructive. As James Madison explained, “as long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed … The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” It is true that this will not always yield concord, but “destroying the liberty which is essential to [factions’] existence” is “worse than the disease.”

It is worth remembering, though, that the idea of a “marketplace of ideas” does not, in fact, come from our Constitution but from later thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. And, like the economic theory on which it metaphorically draws, the idea depends upon a conception of what constitutes a moral community. In particular, it supposes that a free exchange between individuals in a system of competition produces the most desirable result. This does not sound altogether different from Zuckerberg’s idea that “greater connection yield[s] ever greater cooperation.”

Is there an alternative? As Hendrickson puts it: “The U.S. constitutional design,” which, “allows for faction and ultimately works because it requires a social contract that necessitates a minimum level of civic cohesion.” It need only be added that this level of civic cohesion does not seem so minimal in our own time. Moreover, to hold together, it requires other, far less minimal forms of local and civic attachment, of which the commitment to republican self-rule is but one, albeit essential, part.

These are some of the many issues lately taken up at RealClearPolicy. Below you will find just a few highlights.

— M. Anthony Mills, editor | RealClearPolicy 


Five Facts You Need to Know About Facebook’s Data Crisis. The bipartisan group No Labels offers this overview in our pages.

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Work, Welfare and Trump. Robert Doar praises the administration’s latest efforts to reform the benefits program.

CBO Forecast Leaves No Room for Wishful Thinking. James C. Capretta argues that the House GOP’s balanced budget amendment is not a real solution to the nation’s growing fiscal problems.

Five Facts About Trump’s Deployment of Troops to the Border. The bipartisan group No Labels has this overview.

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Education Reform Suffers When Politicians Put Careers Before Kids. In RealClearEducation, Will Flanders urges state lawmakers to follow Wisconsin’s lead on school choice.

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Prohibition All Over Again — This Time, for Cigarettes. In RealClearHealth, Guy Bentley argues that the FDA’s plan to reduce nicotine levels in cigarettes will backfire. 

Time for Congress to Reform the Renewable Fuel Standard. David Holt explains in RealClearEnergy. 

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