Selected Skirmishes: Censory Deception

Conservatives' foolish case for regulating speech


"As a nation we are concerned about pollution, about pure air and water….Is there no such thing as moral pollution?" So inquires political scientist David Lowenthal in his recent Weekly Standard cover story, "The Case for Censorship." Three of four conservative thinkers responding to the provocative piece (William J. Bennett, Terry Eastland, and Irving Kristol) were dubious on implementation issues but applauded Lowenthal for thinking outside the box. Lowenthal's not exactly breaking new ground on the right, of course. Back in his 1996 book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Robert Bork asked, "Is censorship really as unthinkable as we all seem to assume?"

All these large visionaries ruminate on the depths to which Madonna and Lethal Weapon 4 have taken us, displaying unmistakable affection for strict legal limits on expression. Yet they ignore the ghastly ways in which official censorship has functioned in the good old U.S. of A.

Regulation of radio and TV–media licensed according to "public interest, convenience, or necessity" by the Federal Communications Commission–brutally demonstrates that federal regulators will indeed restrict expression, though perhaps in ways conservatives might find unappealing. Time and again, lowest-common-denominator programming has been protected at the expense of the informative or innovative. For instance, the FCC suppressed cable TV for many years–call this a federally mandated "silence of the Lamb," in deference to Brian Lamb, creator of C-SPAN, the network that has done more to open the democratic process to daylight than a thousand "sunshine" laws. Only with deregulation were niche cable networks able to blossom. Given that Newt Gingrich started the congressional Republicans' long march out of the wilderness by giving special-order speeches on C-SPAN, you might think that conservatives, of all people, would understand how they were stymied by censorship.

You might also think that they would recall the notorious Fairness Doctrine, which was used to "harass and intimidate" right-wing radio broadcasts, in the words of one unabashed Kennedy-Johnson operative. When that censorious policy was ended in 1987 by former broadcaster Ronald Reagan, there was an explosion of talk formats that gave voice to popular concerns (for a while, Rush Limbaugh even billed himself as equal time).

In short, the censorship our conservative commissars sorely desire and soaringly extol has long been with us–and has long been used to suppress their own views. But Lowenthal wipes the slate clean, condemning the extant system "where a few hidden figures in movie studios and television networks, motivated primarily by profit, decide what will be available for our viewing." He buttresses his quaint attack upon the market system in entertainment services by invoking Al Gore's favorite regulatory premise, the externality. Bad programming, says Lowenthal, spews costs on third parties like so much car exhaust. Bork attacks the "libertarian virus" that infects "free market economists…[who] ignore the question of which wants it is moral to satisfy."

Such claims are simply incorrect; to suggest that ordering up an adult flick on pay per view harms innocent third persons is nonsense. And free market economists are quite explicit about their belief in "consumer sovereignty." That is, individuals should be free to decide what they consume so long as that consumption does not require the curtailment of another's freedom. Strangely, Lowenthal and Bork deliver conservatives to the altar of collectivism, upon which they sacrifice individual responsibility.

Alas, the cons face another problem: As American culture got raunchier in the 1990s, violent crime rates plummeted, even among kids (hmm, could increased incarceration of criminals have been a factor?). Across the world, societies enjoying American audio and video do not uniformly suffer from the experience. The street-safe Japanese, for instance, devour American movies–and supplement our own blood-and-guts exports with domestic products that jack up the sex-and-violence quotient to levels that would make Oliver Stone cringe.

As sweeping economic changes transform the information options available to Americans, conservatives seem bewildered by the moment. "It's enough to make one a Luddite," exclaims Bork. An odd reaction, that. And one that the late Ithiel de Sola Pool had already countered in his 1983 classic, Technologies of Freedom: On Free Speech in an Electronic Age. Wrote de Sola Pool, "The democratic impulse to regulate evils, as Tocqueville warned, is ironically a reason for worry….The easy access, low cost and distributed intelligence of modern means of communication are a prime reason for hope."

Conservative intellectuals see this wave coming and, rather than scrambling to ride it, try to hold it back. Bad strategy. Surf's up, and the War of Ideas is now happening on Channels 279 to 437.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett (hazlett@primal.ucdavis.edu) teaches economics at the University of California at Davis and is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.