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Capitalist Havens of Free Speech

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Capitalist Havens of Free Speech

Market-driven innovation is providing new outlets for free expression in an increasingly intolerant media environment. Spring 2021
The Social Order
Economy, finance, and budgets

Even before Twitter banned Donald Trump and Amazon stopped hosting the social media site Parler on its web services, free-speech controversies had been regularly erupting at newspapers, magazines, websites, and book publishers. Notable recent cases involved high-profile journalists decamping from their established media homes to independent platforms where they could express themselves freely. The departures, under pressure, of Matt Yglesias last November from the website Vox, which he cofounded, and Andrew Sullivan in July from New York, where he was one of the magazine’s most popular writers, made them fellow travelers with a more conservative journalist, Bari Weiss, who left the New York Times last summer, saying, “If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy, they and their work remain unscrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome.”

Many on the right have seen these departures as examples of a troubling clampdown on free speech, but some progressives dismissed the moves as opportunistic; Sullivan and others have won large readerships at their new homes, they noted. After political scientist Yascha Mounk tweeted support for Yglesias’s move, New York Times tech reporter Mike Isaac countered that Mounk “conveniently ignores the fact that people w/large followings are making bank by jumping ship.”

True enough. After Sullivan left New York, he quickly attracted some 60,000 subscribers to his new newsletter on the independent online platform Substack; he more than doubled the income he was earning at the magazine, he said. One media critic described Sullivan’s success as “gut curdling” to other journalists. Substack reportedly recruited Yglesias, offering him a hefty advance to join after news of his clashes within Vox emerged. Among the other popular features on Substack are Mounk’s free-speech newsletter Persuasion, which aims “to persuade, rather than to mock or troll, those who disagree with us” and gained about 25,000 subscribers just weeks after it debuted in April 2020; and former Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi’s widely read media criticism, published under the rubric TK News.

None of these voices has faced any threat to their speech from government, which is, of course, what the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from. Instead, they have confronted a pervasive new menace: a cultural shift in key elite institutions, especially the media (including social media) and academia, which have made many recently acceptable, even anodyne, opinions suddenly forbidden. The punishment for expressing these beliefs is to get pushed out of those institutions and lose one’s livelihood. Yet new platforms like Substack are emerging as an antidote to such cultural and economic banishment, even if they were not originally designed to become free-speech havens but rather a means of expanding economic opportunity—to give people more choices in how to earn a living.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Free speech and free markets have long been entwined. Both emerged out of the Enlightenment; both emphasized the absence of coercion and the importance of choice. Economist Milton Friedman even argued that it was free markets that made all other freedoms, including that of expression, truly possible. “Government controls over people almost always involve compulsions and prohibitions against their ownership, use, and exchange of goods and services. Control of the press, speech, and religion necessarily follows the controlled market, because, in one way or another, all of them also directly concern the use of property,” he said. Many of those trying to limit free speech today, especially younger elites, also favor greater centralization and control of economic life. But the market is resisting. It has begun to supply the means of production and the audience for a new generation of dissenters. No wonder the Left dismisses these media exiles as opportunists. Their flourishing is a threat to the new cultural hegemony.

Illustration by Garry Brown

Often called the father of political economy, Adam Smith was an eighteenth-century philosopher immersed in the Scottish Enlightenment and a student of Francis Hutcheson and friend of David Hume—two other Scottish thinkers who advanced the idea of a “science of man,” in Hume’s phrase, which sought to study human nature and institutions as Isaac Newton examined the natural world. Their ideas, and those of fellow Enlightenment figures in England and on the European continent, helped undermine the notions that governments were ruled by divine rights conferred on kings and that ethics and morality were solely the province of religion. Out of their work came an emphasis on liberty, human progress, and democratic government characterized by freedom of choice and speech.

Smith’s major contribution to this new era was The Wealth of Nations, in which he, a moral philosopher himself, argued that every man should be “free to pursue his own interest his own way.” The result would be not just richer individuals, he contended, but more productive societies. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” Smith famously wrote. He decried the mercantilism of his time, in which governments sought, through tariffs and other controls, to protect homegrown markets and discourage competition from foreign or disfavored national industries. Government should have a limited role, in Smith’s view: to guard national borders, administer a legal system, and build the infrastructure necessary for economic prosperity.

Later thinkers took Smith’s ideas on competitive markets and used them as justifications for free expression. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill held that tolerating dissenting and minority views facilitated a healthy competition of ideas. United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes extended the analogy when he endorsed a “free trade of ideas,” in which the “best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” Thus arose the conception of free speech as a “marketplace of ideas.”

Milton Friedman took the argument a step further. Though ideas of free speech predated Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Friedman maintained, the freedoms fundamental to democracy, including that of expression, didn’t thrive until markets became free. Economic choice, he observed in a 1986 talk to the Federalist Society, is what taught people what it meant to be free. “Freedom in the marketplace is what produces freedom elsewhere, because in the marketplace transactions are fundamentally anonymous,” he said. “People are cooperating with one another because both sides benefit, because in the marketplace individuals do not have the power to coerce other individuals. It is because of this that the free marketplace is such an important element in a free society.” In modern life, Friedman argued, the average person understands and values freedom of the marketplace at least as much as, if not more than, other liberties.

Technology has consistently driven market competition, as new products and innovations stimulate, expand, and transform industries. Technology has similarly propelled free speech, with new communication methods spreading literacy and exposing more people to ideas. Gutenberg’s printing press, perfected in the mid-fifteenth century, remains perhaps the most influential innovation. When John Milton issued his defense of press freedom, Areopagitica, in London in 1644, as many as a quarter of all books and pamphlets published did not bear the printer’s name because their controversial content made publishers fear for their safety. Out of that cauldron of forbidden ideas, widely disseminated by the printing press, arose democratic norms of free expression.

Some 300 years later, the computer and the Internet may turn out to rival the printing press as a preserver of free expression. Some of the earliest tech innovators, such as Steve Jobs at Apple, grasped the potential for the computer to transform communications through new platforms like desktop publishing, and then through devices like the iPhone, which enabled news and commentary to be transmitted through mobile devices. Tech entrepreneurs weren’t motivated by the ambition to expand free speech, necessarily; rather, they saw a marketplace for innovations that expanded opportunities for ambitious people who lacked the resources of big companies or well-heeled investors. The subsequent rise of the gig economy—a workforce of freelancers moving quickly from one job to another, enabled by high-tech tools—has made the goal of self-employment, of being one’s own boss, a reality for millions of workers. New, easily accessible, and affordable communication platforms have similarly turned self-employment into a business option for opinion makers—and a refuge for those pressured to conform in their opinions, or risk banishment.

Part of what has emerged is a more sophisticated form of self-publishing. Self-publishing is nothing new, of course, and was sometimes derided as the vanity press for those who couldn’t get a book deal from a traditional publishing house. More recently, though, it has also become what Angela Hoy, the operator of BookLocker.com, a self-publishing site, calls a “last bastion of freedom of speech.” In a column last July, Hoy described a writer shopping a novel who faced a growing list of requirements from traditional publishers, including “verbiage in their guidelines saying that they won’t accept any manuscripts that don’t have any LGBTQ characters. Some only accept manuscripts with a conservative slant and some with only a liberal slant (yes, we’re talking about FICTION). Some require at least some major characters to be people of color. The list goes on and on.”

Substack exemplifies how self-publishing has evolved. Launched in 2017 by a journalist and two tech entrepreneurs, the site provides a platform for subscriber-paid electronic newsletters. In the past, the model for an author looking to make a living publishing a newsletter was to target a well-to-do niche audience—people seeking sophisticated investment advice, say—and pitch products costing hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars per year. Substack, by contrast, allows authors to start modestly, charging just a few bucks a month to build a readership, often by offering a mix of free content to all and more exclusive paid content to the most passionate followers. “Now, more than ever, publishers of news and similar content can be profitable through direct payments from readers,” Substack’s founders wrote in introducing the service, which they envision as an answer to the moribund advertising-revenue model that once supported newspapers and magazines.

Substack has enjoyed high-profile backing. It emerged out of Y Combinator, a well-known funding incubator of new firms, and its lead investor is Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. The first Substack newsletter was author Bill Bishop’s Sinocism, with its tagline: “Get smarter about China.” Popular newsletters on the platform have focused on everything from parenting to cryptocurrency to baseball. Substack gets 10 percent of paid subscription revenue—not a bad deal, considering that the thousands of newsletters on the platform collectively have about 250,000 subscribers.

Recently, though, Substack has become the home of opinion writers saying things contrary to the new orthodoxy. It attracts writers from across the ideological spectrum. Heading into 2021, one of its most popular newsletters was The Dispatch, a conservative-leaning publication started by two Trump critics, former Weekly Standard editor Stephen Hayes and columnist Jonah Goldberg. Launched in October 2019, it ended its first year with 100,000 subscribers, nearly $2 million in revenue, and a staff of 12. Meanwhile, Weiss has also migrated to Substack, where she recently said in a missive to readers, “Thanks to you, this newsletter now pays my old salary and more.”

A quartet of Substack writers—none conservative—has challenged conventional wisdom on the left with newsletters, including former Rolling Stone reporter Taibbi, onetime Guardian columnist and cofounder of The Intercept Glenn Greenwald, Sullivan, and Yglesias. Taibbi has drawn leftist ire because of his contention that mainstream media have become too reluctant to criticize Democrats, while Greenwald has dared to say that Trump’s foreign policy was less toxic than that of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Meantime, Yglesias made headlines last summer when he signed a bipartisan letter objecting to cancel culture, and then came under fire at Vox after a colleague said that his endorsement made her “feel less safe.” Complaining about the “young-college-graduate bubble” inside Vox, Yglesias received a quarter-million-dollar advance to move to Substack. He’s earning $27,000 a month in subscription revenue from his Slow Boring newsletter, he told The New Yorker earlier this year.

One senses that legions of others will follow these pioneers. “It is difficult to convey just how many amazing writers, journalists, and think-tankers—some young and some old, some relatively obscure and others very famous—have privately told me that they can no longer write in their own voices; that they are counting the days until they get fired; and that they don’t know where to turn if they do,” Mounk wrote, soon after starting Persuasion on Substack. “Instead of lamenting our loss of control over the establishment, we should follow the lead of other movements that have successfully built their own counter-establishment institutions.”

Substack’s appeal has only grown after the free-expression clampdowns by big tech companies following the riots at the U.S. Capitol in early January. Though Substack prohibits threats and explicit calls for violence, it avoids Twitter- and Facebook-style content moderation. One of the company’s founders says that the platform’s best moderating device is its subscription model: readers can unsubscribe from content they don’t like.

The freedom to reach readers directly is an increasingly popular business strategy in the new world of online publishing. “When you sharecrop on someone else’s platform, they become your master. They dictate what you can and can’t say on their platform,” the owner of AuthorMedia.com, Thomas Umstattd Jr., explains. “Facebook, Twitter, and Google are the landlords and you are the lowly tenant.” Umstattd’s business helps authors design their own websites using open-source software. He extols the self-publishing model. “No one gets kicked off because of a demanding mob,” he wrote recently. He also encourages his clients to diversify income streams with blogs and podcasts, which they can link to on their freestanding websites. “The more diversified your income stream, the harder it is to cancel you financially,” he says. While Umstattd deploys WordPress as his open-source software, alternatives have emerged, including Ghost, which allows authors to begin a blog, and then migrate that into a paid newsletter.

Web browsers like Brave, which uses a new protocol known as the “InterPlanetary File System,” are helping create a more decentralized Internet to overcome “systemic data censorship” by government or tech companies, according to one expert on the technology. More such innovations are likely to debut in the current environment for a simple reason. “The worldwide web was built by free speech idealists,” Umstattd says, “and the structure of the Internet is such that it’s nearly impossible to cancel someone’s website,” especially if it’s self-hosted. More and more iconoclasts are looking at that open model as a way of circumventing big tech.

Some of today’s most ardent free-expression advocates won their economic independence as entrepreneurs, beginning more than a decade ago. Adam Carolla was a successful morning radio-show and cable-TV personality when, in February 2009, he was dropped from his radio gig as a Howard Stern replacement in West Coast markets after CBS Radio switched to a cheaper music-based format. Carolla turned to the relatively new format of podcasting just two days after he lost the radio job, using his personal website to alert fans. A quarter of a million followers downloaded his first program. Within less than a week, Carolla’s podcast was iTunes’s most downloaded show.

In his first installment, Carolla unloaded on the radio industry that had nurtured his career but also jettisoned him. “Radio has a lot of rules that are set up to protect the foibles and weaknesses of the host,” he complained. Podcasting gave him greater freedom, he told fans. Eager to cash in on the attention he was suddenly getting, but restrained by a noncompete clause with CBS, Carolla started creating other podcasts that didn’t conflict with his former radio show, the beginning of what became the ACE Broadcasting Network and then Carolla Digital. He has produced more than a dozen podcast series to date—some starring him, others with friends and former associates—with titles like “All Balls, All Sports” and “Take a Knee.” Some require monthly subscription fees. He has also used crowdfunding to produce movies like Road Hard, written books with provocative titles like I’m Your Emotional Support Animal, released several documentaries, and debuted branded merchandise and drinks.

A longtime controversialist, dating back to the 1990s as cohost of the politically incorrect The Man Show on Comedy Central, Carolla has managed to keep his brand growing, despite the cancel culture that has shut down numerous comedians. The San Francisco Chronicle has denounced him as an “open fascist” who has “seamlessly ingratiated himself into the alt-right ecosystem” for his blunt tweets arguing, for example, that the Covid-19 lockdowns were unnecessary because most of those dying were old or sick. Carolla’s response has been to dive in to the free-speech debate by making the No Safe Spaces documentary with radio host Dennis Prager about speech battles on college campuses. He has talked frequently about efforts to cancel him. “These are bullies people are scared of. They’re scared for their jobs, they’re scared for their social standing,” Carolla says. “But the more people who speak up, the easier it is for others to speak up.”

Others are building platforms to escape the cancel-culture mob. Former stand-up comedian Dave Rubin won a following as a political commentator with a show on the leftist Young Turks YouTube network, but he gradually broke with his colleagues over the Left’s growing hostility toward free speech. He then produced his show independently on YouTube, garnering tens of millions of views and nearly 1 million subscribers, earning frequent mentions as a member of the “intellectual dark web” of free-speech defenders. Rubin raised much of his funding after he left Young Turks through voluntary donations on Patreon but opted to leave the crowdfunding service after it, too, began canceling some controversial figures. He has since created a new platform, Locals.com, which enables content creators to connect directly with audiences without having to sign on to the restrictive terms of service and highly subjective content moderation that big tech companies impose. Creators buy in to the site and manage their own communities through tools provided by the platform. Rubin has described the project as “unbundling the Internet” and a bottom-up approach to content, managed by the creators themselves. Like Substack, Locals.com is a subscription service that only loosely moderates activities, relying on a pay-to-participate model to filter out trolls.

So far, Rubin’s platform has signed up creators as varied as Dilbert cartoonist and political commentator Scott Adams, former Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, comedian Bridget Phetasy, and Fox News personality Greg Gutfeld. Adams migrated his content to Locals.com, he said, “to get away from the big tech platforms that would like to determine what you see and what you don’t see.” He’s praised the platform as “a place I can’t be canceled.”

In the seventeenth century, John Milton optimistically asserted that when all ideas are considered “in a free and open encounter,” truth will triumph. Today’s advocates for limits on speech—made up especially of younger college graduates—make the opposite case. They assume an intellectual and moral superiority that justifies them, at least in their own minds, seeking the suppression of ideas that they consider dangerous. Their vision, however, is the antithesis of a free society. “The real case for a free society is ignorance, the fact that we cannot be sure we’re right,” Milton Friedman argued. “If I cannot persuade someone by reason and argument to agree with me, what right do I have to force him?”

Friedman’s twin pillars of a free society—freedom of expression and of markets—have rarely been as crucial to America as they are right now.

Top Photo: adamkaz/iStock

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