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Wednesday, May 4, 2022 Leer en Español

Never Say Capitalism Can’t Save Free Speech

Elon Musk's Twitter takeover casts doubt on the assumption that government is the only solution to online censorship.

[Editor’s note: This is a version of an article published in the Out of Frame Weekly, an email newsletter about the intersection of art, culture, and ideas. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.]

For years, some people who oppose censorship on social media have asserted that the government must stop it. Others have argued that, though it is a problem that companies distort public discourse, the free market is a better solution than the state.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk buying Twitter last week is the perfect example that private actors can bring about change on this issue. I have written previously that the solution to “woke capital”—influential companies using their power to promote a left-wing political agenda—is to build up individuals who are powerful enough to counter it. In a free market, money is power.

It isn’t certain that Musk will achieve all of his promises. He may make compromises with other elements of Twitter leadership who are less inclined to free speech than he is. He has also expressed some suspicious exceptions to his “free-speech absolutism.” But why didn’t anyone treat this as a possible solution before jumping to government as the only answer? To assume that these companies will inevitably be how they are ignores the change that happens in a free market, whether through competition or events like Elon Musk’s acquisition.

By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law.

I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.

If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect.

Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 26, 2022

You might object that it takes a lot of money to buy Twitter. Shouldn’t it be easier to change things than that?

But this ignores the fact that the people currently running these companies also had to work their way into a high position. What principle makes it possible for people with a certain ideology to build or to take over social networks, but too difficult for their opponents? That they get favors from the government? That is not exclusive to any one political ideology.

You must also consider that (as I wrote when Musk took a seat on Twitter’s board) having government regulate social media companies doesn’t cause this power to disappear, it simply transfers it to the state. Although people think this means “the people” are therefore in charge, the facts of public-choice economics mean that the government is actually less accountable and more monolithic than Twitter and Facebook.

  • Matt Hampton is the Commentary Content Associate for the Foundation for Economic Education.