Free Speech

Is It Too Much To Ask That Politicians Know What They're Talking About?

The answer to “Why should these people go to prison?” should not be ill-informed gibberish.


It's bad enough when you're governed by people who are hostile to your values. It's that much worse when the folks in charge not only inflict bad policy, but also very obviously don't know or don't care what they're talking about on their way to doing their worst. As unpleasant as it is to be under the thumb of your enemies, it's the height of frustration to be governed by idiots.

"I'll protect the First Amendment any day of the week," New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) recently told NBC's Chuck Todd. "But you don't protect hate speech. You don't protect incendiary speech. You're not allowed to scream 'fire' in a crowded theater. There are limitations on speech."

Hochul spoke after the racist mass murder at a Buffalo supermarket, so she can be forgiven a strong reaction. She undoubtedly expected a positive reception for her proposal to muzzle despicable ideas connected to a crime. But as a lawyer and elected official, she can't be forgiven for the mistaken claim that horrifying crimes overrule free speech rights. And yes, nasty, offensive, and hateful speech is protected.

"The First Amendment makes no general exception for offensive, repugnant, or hateful expression," the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education pointed out earlier this year. "A key problem with regulating hate speech, as free-speech scholars such as Nadine Strossen have identified, is that it remains difficult, if not impossible, to define exactly what constitutes hate speech. There remains an eye-of-the-beholder phenomenon with hate speech." 

Germany, which has set itself up as the poster child for stupid speech restrictions, demonstrated the danger when its NetzDG law against "hate speech" ensnared comedians along with people who just offended the powers-that-be shortly after it was implemented. 

No doubt New York City Mayor Eric Adams also expected attaboys when he turned "high prices suck, amirite?" sentiment into policy by imposing price controls on baby formula. 

"This emergency executive order will help us to crack down on any retailer looking to capitalize on this crisis by jacking up prices on this essential good," he huffed. "Our message to struggling mothers and families is simple: Our city will do everything in its power to assist you during this challenging period."

But maybe Adams should have taken a moment to grasp that the last time politicians tried to "help" baby formula buyers they set the stage for the current shortage with high tariffs on imported formula, bizarre labeling rules, and other ill-considered regulations. The result was an industry with a few government-connected suppliers, too rigid to quickly respond to disruption. Limiting what can be charged for a scarce commodity won't improve the situation.

"Among economists, price gouging isn't a thing," wrote Antony Davies, associate professor of economics at Duquesne University and James Harrigan, then the managing director of the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona, in a 2020 column. "The term simply reflects the emotional response non-economists have to rapid price increases."

"Passing a law that holds the price down doesn't change the reality that there isn't enough to go around," they added. "But it does incent buyers to hoard and dissuades sellers from bringing more to market, which is exactly the opposite of what we want."

Eric Adams isn't an economist, but there are more than a few people with such expertise rattling around Wall Street and university economics departments in his city. Surely, they could tell him that his policy will do more harm than good, if he cared to listen.

But politicians don't listen so much as they posture for supporters and preen for television cameras. That's why we get impassioned calls for legislation that just can't wait another day from officials who don't have the slightest clue about the subject over which they want to threaten people with fines and arrest.

Former Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D–N.Y.) may live forever as a meme for her description of the barrel shroud, a specifically forbidden feature of the "assault weapons" she wanted to ban, as a "shoulder thing that goes up." It is not anything of the sort. She might have been better off sticking with her preliminary and honest admission that "I actually don't know what a barrel shroud is."

And if firearms have legislators baffled, don't get them started on the Internet. 

"How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?" The late Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–Utah) suspiciously quizzed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during testimony in 2018.

"Senator, we run ads," Zuckerberg replied, more than a decade after implementing that revenue model on the popular social media platform.

"Will you commit to ending finsta?" Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D–Conn.) demanded of another Facebook exec last year. He was apparently unaware that "finsta" is slang for a secondary Instagram account and neither especially nefarious nor really under company control.

And the less said about former President Trump's medical musings (injectable disinfectant, anybody?) the better.

Look, nobody can be expected to be up to speed on every subject under the sun. But it's more than fair to insist that government officials at least consult with people who know what the hell they're talking about before taking potentially ruinous action. Lawmakers should have a basic grasp of whatever they're carrying on about and actually think that it's bad before they use the power of the state to hurt people who engage in that supposedly bad thing. The answer to "why should these people be threatened with prison?" should not, under any circumstances, be a stream of ill-informed gibberish.

Much of the argument against intrusive and presumptuous government is based on the potential for malice and self-serving in officeholders and the opportunity to do harm that a far-reaching state offers to those who are intolerant of people who think and live differently. It's difficult enough to battle such creatures. We shouldn't also have to face off against those who foolishly wield the power of their positions based on nothing more than abject idiocy.