A Coasean Analysis of Offensive Speech

Jamie Whyte —  13 September 2021 — Leave a comment

[The following post was adapted from the International Center for Law & Economics White Paper “Polluting Words: Is There a Coasean Case to Regulate Offensive Speech?]

Words can wound. They can humiliate, anger, insult.

University students—or, at least, a vociferous minority of them—are keen to prevent this injury by suppressing offensive speech. To ensure campuses are safe places, they militate for the cancellation of talks by speakers with opinions they find offensive, often successfully. And they campaign to get offensive professors fired from their jobs.

Off campus, some want this safety to be extended to the online world and, especially, to the users of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. In the United States, this would mean weakening the legal protections of offensive speech provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (as President Joe Biden has recommended) or by the First Amendment and. In the United Kingdom, the Online Safety Bill is now before Parliament. If passed, it will give a U.K. government agency the power to dictate the content-moderation policies of social media platforms.

You don’t need to be a woke university student or grandstanding politician to suspect that society suffers from an overproduction of offensive speech. Basic economics provides a reason to suspect it—the reason being that offense is an external cost of speech. The cost is borne not by the speaker but by his audience. And when people do not bear all the costs of an action, they do it too much.

Jack tweets “women don’t have penises.” This offends Jill, who is someone with a penis who considers herself (or himself, if Jack is right) to be a woman. And it offends many others, who agree with Jill that Jack is indulging in ugly transphobic biological essentialism. Lacking Bill Clinton’s facility for feeling the pain of others, Jack does not bear this cost. So, even if it exceeds whatever benefit Jack gets from saying that women don’t have penises, he will still say it. In other words, he will say it even when doing so makes society altogether worse off.

It shouldn’t be allowed!

That’s what we normally say when actions harm others more than they benefit the agent. The law normally conforms to John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle” by restricting activities—such as shooting people or treating your neighbours to death metal at 130 decibels at 2 a.m.—with material external costs. Those who seek legal reform to restrict offensive speech are surely doing no more than following an accepted general principle.

But it’s not so simple. As Ronald Coase pointed out in his famous 1960 article “The Problem of Social Cost,” externalities are a reciprocal problem. If Wayne had no neighbors, his playing death metal at 130 decibels at 2 a.m. would have no external costs. Their choice of address is equally a source of the problem. Similarly, if Jill weren’t a Twitter user, she wouldn’t have been offended by Jack’s tweet about who has a penis, since she wouldn’t have encountered it. Externalities are like tangos: they always have at least two perpetrators.

So, the legal question, “who should have a right to what they want?”—Wayne to his loud music or his neighbors to their sleep; Jack to expressing his opinion about women or Jill to not hearing such opinions—cannot be answered by identifying the party who is responsible for the external cost. Both parties are responsible.

How, then, should the question be answered? In the same paper, Coase the showed that, in certain circumstances, who the courts favor will make no difference to what ends up happening, and that what ends up happening will be efficient. Suppose the court says that Wayne cannot bother his neighbors with death metal at 2 a.m. If Wayne would be willing to pay $100,000 to keep doing it and his neighbors, combined, would put up with it for anything more than $95,000, then they should be able to arrive at a mutually beneficial deal whereby Wayne pays them something between $95,000 and $100,000 to forgo their right to stop him making his dreadful noise.

That’s not exactly right. If negotiating a deal would cost more than $5,000, then no mutually beneficial deal is possible and the rights-trading won’t happen. Transaction costs being less than the difference between the two parties’ valuations is the circumstance in which the allocation of legal rights makes no difference to how resources get used, and where efficiency will be achieved, in any event.

But it is an unusual circumstance, especially when the external cost is suffered by many people. When the transaction cost is too high, efficiency does depend on the allocation of rights by courts or legislatures. As Coase argued, when this is so, efficiency will be served if a right to the disputed resource is granted to the party with the higher cost of avoiding the externality.

Given the (implausible) valuations Wayne and his neighbors place on the amount of noise in their environment at 2 a.m., efficiency is served by giving Wayne the right to play his death metal, unless he could soundproof his house or play his music at a much lower volume or take some other avoidance measure that costs him less than the $90,000 cost to his neighbours.

And given that Jack’s tweet about penises offends a large open-ended group of people, with whom Jack therefore cannot negotiate, it looks like they should be given the right not to be offended by Jack’s comment and he should be denied the right to make it. Coasean logic supports the woke censors!          

But, again, it’s not that simple—for two reasons.

The first is that, although those are offended may be harmed by the offending speech, they needn’t necessarily be. Physical pain is usually harmful, but not when experienced by a sexual masochist (in the right circumstances, of course). Similarly, many people take masochistic pleasure in being offended. You can tell they do, because they actively seek out the sources of their suffering. They are genuinely offended, but the offense isn’t harming them, just as the sexual masochist really is in physical pain but isn’t harmed by it. Indeed, real pain and real offense are required, respectively, for the satisfaction of the sexual masochist and the offense masochist.

How many of the offended are offense masochists? Where the offensive speech can be avoided at minimal cost, the answer must be most. Why follow Jordan Peterson on Twitter when you find his opinions offensive unless you enjoy being offended by him? Maybe some are keeping tabs on the dreadful man so that they can better resist him, and they take the pain for that reason rather than for masochistic glee. But how could a legislator or judge know? For all they know, most of those offended by Jordan Peterson are offense masochists and the offense he causes is a positive externality.

The second reason Coasean logic doesn’t support the would-be censors is that social media platforms—the venues of offensive speech that they seek to regulate—are privately owned. To see why this is significant, consider not offensive speech, but an offensive action, such as openly masturbating on a bus.

This is prohibited by law. But it is not the mere act that is illegal. You are allowed to masturbate in the privacy of your bedroom. You may not masturbate on a bus because those who are offended by the sight of it cannot easily avoid it. That’s why it is illegal to express obscenities about Jesus on a billboard erected across the road from a church but not at a meeting of the Angry Atheists Society. The laws that prohibit offensive speech in such circumstances—laws against public nuisance, harassment, public indecency, etc.—are generally efficient. The cost they impose on the offenders is less than the benefits to the offended.

But they are unnecessary when the giving and taking of offense occur within a privately owned place. Suppose no law prohibited masturbating on a bus. It still wouldn’t be allowed on buses owned by a profit-seeker. Few people want to masturbate on buses and most people who ride on buses seek trips that are masturbation-free. A prohibition on masturbation will gain the owner more customers than it loses him. The prohibition is simply another feature of the product offered by the bus company. Nice leather seats, punctual departures, and no wankers (literally). There is no more reason to believe that the bus company’s passenger-conduct rules will be inefficient than that its other product features will be and, therefore, no more reason to legally stipulate them.

The same goes for the content-moderation policies of social media platforms. They are just another product feature offered by a profit-seeking firm. If they repel more customers than they attract (or, more accurately, if they repel more advertising revenue than they attract), they would be inefficient. But then, of course, the company would not adopt them.

Of course, the owner of a social media platform might not be a pure profit-maximiser. For example, he might forgo $10 million in advertising revenue for the sake of banning speakers he personally finds offensive. But the outcome is still efficient. Allowing the speech would have cost more by way of the owner’s unhappiness than the lost advertising would have been worth.  And such powerful feelings in the owner of a platform create an opportunity for competitors who do not share his feelings. They can offer a platform that does not ban the offensive speakers and, if enough people want to hear what they have to say, attract users and the advertising revenue that comes with them. 

If efficiency is your concern, there is no problem for the authorities to solve. Indeed, the idea that the authorities would do a better job of deciding content-moderation rules is not merely absurd, but alarming. Politicians and the bureaucrats who answer to them or are appointed by them would use the power not to promote efficiency, but to promote agendas congenial to them. Jurisprudence in liberal democracies—and, especially, in America—has been suspicious of governmental control of what may be said. Nothing about social media provides good reason to become any less suspicious.

Jamie Whyte

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Jamie Whyte is an economic consultant and author. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Cambridge and is the author of Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders (2004, McGraw-Hill Education).

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