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Off topic: Frank view of blasphemy

A couple of months ago, I read this New York Times article by economist Robert Frank, suggesting that Darwin's ideas may be a better guide to economics than (popularized versions of) Adam Smith's ideas. I was impressed and have been reading his books with considerable interest.

Many of his economic ideas parallel ideas I'm exploring in my book on Darwinian Agriculture. A singer, runner, or lawyer who's only 1% better may make ten times as much money, just as a leaf that's only 1 mm above the leaf of a competing plant may have ten times the photosynthesis. "Arms races" among humans -- working overtime will let you afford a house that is more expensive than average, so that your kids can go to a better-than-average school, but if everyone works overtime half the population still sends their kids to below-average schools -- parallel arms races among plants -- being taller than your neighbor means more photosynthesis and so more seed production, but if every plant grows taller that doesn't increase total photosynthesis and wastes resources on tall stems. And so on.

But today, in honor of Blasphemy Day, I want to summarize an interesting idea from his book, Choosing the Right Pond.

Freedom of speech is often presented as an "inalienable right", perhaps granted by (though never actively protected by) some hypothetical Creator. Frank suggests an alternative origin, based on freedom of association and economies of scale....


Although migration in and out of most countries is somewhat restricted, a sufficiently motivated person can often evade those restrictions. Mobility within countries is typically even less restricted. So freedom of association is, to some extent, a truly inalienable right.

Often, people would prefer to associate with those who share their views on particular issues. But no two people agree on everything. The larger the group, the more areas of disagreement. You may be able to find a small country where most people share most of your views, but any large country is likely to include many people with different, perhaps deeply offensive, views.

Now, add economies of scale. There are many advantages to living in a larger country. Trade within countries isn't hampered by borders or tariffs. Bigger countries have more influence on international agreements. And so on. If you want the advantages of living in a larger country, you have to accept (in some sense) sharing it with those with different views.

Back to blasphemy. Hearing or seeing their religion (Islam, Christianity, Gaea/group-selection, whatever) or national/tribal symbols insulted often upsets people. Frank argues that blasphemy may sometimes actually harm people, in the same sense that noise or smog does, even if the only physical effect is an increase in stress hormones. This was a new idea for me, but I think he may have a point. But, he continues, preventing people from speaking their mind also causes stress.

You can imagine a market-based approach to this problem, where religious zealots and aspiring blasphemers discuss how much money to exchange, and in which direction, to compensate zealots for not having to hear blasphemy or to compensate nonbelievers for restricting their freedom. But the transaction costs would be huge, particularly in a large (and hence inevitably diverse) country, where one person's blasphemy is another's dogma.

A better solution is to classify hearing offensive speech as one of the costs of living in a large country. You may object to noise ordinances that limit your right to hold late-night parties or you may think you pay more than your share of taxes. Of course you can work to change those laws, but no large group is going to agree with you on everything. Get used to it.

Or move to some tiny country whose laws are more consistent with your views. But be prepared for disappointment. Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories apparently aren't small enough to ensure unanimity. I bet Quebec wouldn't be either.

Happy Blasphemy Day!

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