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A new paper researched by three prominent academics says the rich might value free speech in theory but the poor need it in practice

Public Policy / news
A new paper researched by three prominent academics says the rich might value free speech in theory but the poor need it in practice
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A new article says low income people benefit most from free speech, even if they don't realise it.

It argues that low income people need the right to say what they think, or to organise protests, because that is often the only means available for them to get their message across.

But prosperous, well connected people often have access to influential leaders and can quietly make their opinions known no matter what the law says.

The article goes on to contrast the reality of free speech with publicly held positions on it.  

It says that poor people often see free speech as a luxury, while rich people often proclaim strong support for it. But the underlying reality is that poor people need it more than rich people do.

These issues have been described in an article in the USA-based international publication, the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. It was written by the Wellington lawyer and economist Diana Voerman-Tam, the academic and former Reserve Bank economist and chairman, Arthur Grimes, and a researcher with the research institute Motu, Nicholas Watson.

To reach their conclusions, the team analysed existing empirical research, covering 300,000 individuals over a 40-year period.

One study they relied on was the so-called Latino Barometer, which was a cross-sectional survey of people from 17 countries who were interviewed 18 times over 23 years.

Another source was the World Values Survey, which did a similar thing seven times in 36 years across 90 countries.

There was also country-level information on free speech and human rights compiled on two separate data bases.

The findings of the research put a new slant on famous statements such as that by the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahator Mohammed: “You must eat before you can vote. ”

The article says free speech is not necessarily a luxury good for poor people even if they sometimes think it is.

“While it is not their top priority when making ends meet, they gain greater benefit from having free speech than more prosperous groups do,” the team writes.

“We conclude that even though survey evidence for stated preferences indicates that free speech is a luxury good, regimes which increase freedom of speech (on average) simultaneously raise the subjective wellbeing of more marginalised members of society relative to those with greater resources.”

Arthur Grimes says free speech enables lower income people to express their views through ordinary conversations, writing letters, going to their union boss, or organising protests, which they could not do if free speech were restricted.

The report stresses subjective wellbeing rather than objective economic progress. There have been many suggestions that democracy is good for the economy because it empowers people at all levels of society to come up with entrepreneurial ideas which were previously reserved for the upper class. Similar arguments have been proposed for the empowerment of women since it frees up half the population to make economic progress.

But Grimes says economic results are not the main thrust of the research.

"There is not a lot of evidence that free speech and human rights have a huge effect on economic performance,” Grimes says.

“Economic freedoms such as reduced regulations tend to have quite a major impact on growth and the level of incomes in an economy, but there is much less evidence that free speech itself has economic outcomes.”

He concedes that free speech might allow someone to express a bright new idea that helps an economy, but equally, it might not.

“But there is an intrinsic benefit to having free speech that might lead to having benefits that people otherwise would not have to improve the quality of their lives.”

The article by Grimes and his team has been published at a time when debate is rumbling on about hate speech. Legislation to curb this problem appears to have stalled, due to worries about definitions and workability.

Grimes suggests there is an issue to be faced up to here.

“Even countries with the greatest levels of free speech still have curbs on some forms of hate speech, or speech advocating treason or terrorism, so there are always going to be some curbs even in an almost entirely free-speech country.

“I think what this evidence suggests is that we should err on the side of caution before we start restricting things. It is better to be open than to go the other way and say, let's restrict this just in case.

“So I would be on the side of those who say let's be very careful and very cautious before we start introducing new restrictions.”

Grimes goes on to make another point. He says legal theorists often say that for every right there is a corresponding duty.

“The way I look at it is that if there is a right to free speech there is a duty on all of us to listen, and that involves listening to alternative views.

“If you think about the importance of a cohesive society, it is not just that we should have free speech, but that at an individual level, we should also listen to what others are saying.”

Grimes says this is increasingly not happening. He says people are often unwilling to tolerate other people's ideas, and are even shutting them down via so called “cancel culture.”

“I think people should expose themselves to to other views, I think that is really important,” Grimes says.

“Free speech should go along with free listening.”

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Squeaky wheel gets the oil . 


When I think of free speech I am often reminded of the mighty Christopher Hitchens who often defended the right of others to say whatever they liked, no matter how controversial.

I think we are really struggling with that idea today.
I want to the right to hear new ideas, even the most crackpot theories that I’ll probably disagree with and I want to be able to debate those who push these ideas if I wish, without bitterness, hatred or taking disagreement as a personal insult.

I remember living in France when the Charlie Hebdo authors were slaughtered because of satire. Even some French (who generally love a good debate on anything) made the argument of ‘it’s bad, but they shouldn’t have made jokes about Islam.’

This partial justification of violence against authors of mere drawings and words demonstrated to me an erosion in our collective mentality of just how important our free speech values are to us.

If you want society to regress to a totalitarian state where no one can innovate and dogma is to be unquestioned just like certain religious states of yesterday and today, then by all means, start by saying that no religious or cultural beliefs should be questioned for fear of offending, insult and cancel those with a controversial view, keep your head down and question nothing. Write it into legislation while you’re at it! Socrates will be seen as a heathen again and all blissful order will be restored to the sheeple.

You may disagree with me, and I’ll be glad to hear why.


Incidentally, one of the reasons why I value’s comments forum much higher than say is that although hate speech is not tolerated here, (fair enough) nearly anything else goes.

I’ve noticed with Stuff is that there must be a ‘cuddles central’ band of moderators, or a sinister ‘be kind’ algorithm that prevents many posts bordering on ‘un-PC’ or ‘controversial’ from being posted in the first place.

It has dulled down the quality and depth of the conversation there.

On, it’s on a totally different level, often refreshing.


If the year was 1500 and we somehow had youtube, then Copernicus would be 100% for sure shadow banned and denounced for spreading misinformation by saying that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. would have allowed his comments I'm sure.


But the earth is the centre of the universe. If you measure very accurately to the edge of the universe in all directions then your measuring instrument on earth is the precise centre.

If had existed in 1500 our comments would be disagreeing as to whether the planets go round the sun in circles, ellipses or ovals.


Nice catch.  You're right.


But would have banned him fer sure - these guys are total flat earthers - sobvious.


I like the expression, "sunlight is the best disinfectant". By cancelling those with opinions that offend some powerful group (whether minority or majority), we merely send that opinion underground. It doesn't go away. There it festers, and gathers the potential to become violently expressed, precisley because society wouldn't allow it to be peacfully expressed.


True free speech requires artistry whereby even the most offensive of ideals can be conveyed without offending the masses whereas the rantings of a lunatic require an almost obscene level of tolerance . Should Free Speech be censored ? My opinion is most certainly if it does not conform to the local standard of public broadcasting .Such would be indicative that the minimum level of consciousness required in formulating the speech has not been met. 'ART'iculate 


Human progress and adaption to change requires knowledge creation.  The most coherent principal of knowledge creation, that I’m aware of, come from Karl Popper who postulates that it's derived from conjecture and criticism.  Suppression of free speech and the adoption of orthodoxies are therefore antithetical to the principals of knowledge creation.  The end result is that we’re heading down a well-trodden and very dark path if we keep suppressing free speech.