DRI-177 for week of 1-11-15: ‘Je Suis Charlie?’ Not If We Use Our Brains

An Access Advertising EconBrief: 

‘Je Suis Charlie?’ Not If We Use Our Brains

The terrorist assault on the Paris satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” was nothing if not predictable. For over a decade, European depictions of the prophet Mohammed have met with murderous response. Earlier, in 1989, the novelist Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses earned one of history’s worst reviews – a fatwa calling on every Muslim to kill its author. The book’s translator was killed in the wake of that decree. In 2004, a television film by Dutch director Theo van Gogh criticized the Islamic religion – van Gogh was killed because of it. Prior to this assault, Charlie Hebdo cartoonists had been attacked in 2011 for daring to satirize Islam.

By recent standards, the human toll of this terrorist attack was relatively modest – the 12 magazine employees and police who were killed by the raid, the four additional hostages and one policewoman who died in the aftermath and, of course, the terrorists who died in the attack or were later hunted down and killed. Compare that to the butcher’s bill of 2,000 villagers, mostly children and elderly, who died at the hands of the Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria at about the same time. Apparently, the public visibility of a satirical literary magazine and the sacred cause of free speech invoked in its name – as if mass murder alone were not enough to provoke outrage – give Charlie Hebdo pride of place.

It seems we are fated to react emotively rather than cerebrally to these events. Hence the professions of shock and disbelief in official circles and the public resort to the finger-waving slogan “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie). Displays of false bravado, after the fact, ignore the issues raised by the attack and – even more to the point – those raised by the actions that led to it. The ballyhooed rally attended by officials of numerous governments, from which a U.S. representative was conspicuously absent, will prove equally ineffectual as a counterweight to terrorism.

Is Free Speech a Free Good?

By all accounts, the issue of “Charlie Hebdo” objected to by terrorists and Muslims fundamentalists in general treated the prophet Mohammed irreverently. The attitude taken by the publishers was, and is, that religion deserves to be treated with healthy disrespect. As it happens, this has proved controversial, even after the terrorist attack.

In some quarters, not merely theological, it has been suggested that the magazine’s producers brought their fate on themselves by the coarseness and insensitivity of their actions. In turn, these suggestions have provoked indignant rebuttals that bad taste by cartoonists did not merit a death sentence. The one thread running through mainstream reaction to the attack has been that our embrace of free speech demands a defense of the magazine and its actions.

But is that true? Or, more precisely, in what sense or to what extent is it true?

The word “free” means different things in political philosophy and economics. A person is free to act in the philosophic sense if he is not subject to external constraint. A free good differs from an economic good in being costless; that is, in lacking a foregone alternative in its production or creation. “Free speech” is a political concept, not an economic one. All too often, alas, the lack of constraint on speech has been conflated with the ability to escape all adverse consequences of speech. In other words, the freedom to speak as one chooses has been confused with the power to control reactions to one’s speech.

A movie star is free to publicly disparage the foreign-policy views of her fan base, but if her free-speech exercise causes fans to shun her movies, she lacks the power to compel them. An employee is free to publicly ascribe his company’s falling net income to the CEO’s incompetence, but his right to free speech won’t secure his job thereafter.

Strictly speaking, the Charlie Hebdo attack does not raise any questions of free speech. There is no doubt of the magazine’s right – or rather, its employees’ right – to formulate and publish opinions that are uncongenial and even hateful to others. The question is: What follows from the probable reactions to the exercise of that free speech right?

In this case, it was a foregone conclusion that the offending issue would bring physical violence down upon the magazine. Indeed, employees had already been attacked after publication of previous issues. Does this mean that the magazine should not have published the offending issue?

No. But it does mean that the terrorist attack should have been treated like any other cost of doing business – factored into the decision-making of the firm. That implies that the firm should have been responsible for financing its own security against terrorist attack rather than relying on government protection. Press reports say that “light police protection” was afforded the magazine in response to previous attacks on employees and threats of future attacks. Clearly, this level of official protection was inadequate. What was needed was sufficient force to cope with terrorists trained in military methods and armed accordingly. And the security setup should have been designed to kill terrorists before they could reach the employees of the magazine.

Requiring Charlie Hebdo to pay its own security bill would have changed the terms of the decision faced by the magazine. What commentators glorify as “free speech” is really a literary product – let us call it “satirical humor” – created to serve the economic purposes of pleasing readers and attracting advertisers. Only if the potential marginal revenue from this product exceeds the marginal cost of production – which should properly include the cost of security – will the issue actually be created and published.

Does this seem improbable? It shouldn’t. The post-attack issue of Charlie Hebdo has already sold out two huge press runs totaling some five million copies, so the possibility that this kind of satire could actually be self-financing is not so unlikely after all. But whether improbable or not, these are the conditions under which it is appropriate to wave a red flag in front of bullheaded terrorists. They are economic, not moral or philosophical or political, criteria.

The Deterrent Effect

Actually, the economic arguments are not the only ones in support of this stance, even though they are decisive on their own merits. Terrorists have one thing in common with solitary mass shooters: they are undeterred by the threat of death. Both kinds of murderers are prepared to die. They are afraid only of failure. Thus, thwarting terrorists by killing them before they can strike not only spares immediate victims but also is the only potential deterrent to future terrorism.

The actual raid on Charlie Hebdo was a success from a terrorist perspective, since it achieved its tactical goals and the killers escaped the scene to claim credit for their crime. The perpetrators were eventually caught, to be sure, but that is something that terrorists accept and plan for. Each tactical success and the shocked, anguished reaction it generates wins new converts to the cause – that is what gives terrorism its name.

When the political right of free speech is exercised in the form of satiric magazine content, it becomes an economic good – and at that point it is subject to judgment on those terms. If it creates enough value to offset the costs of its production, it is a good thing. If not, it is better foregone.

Je Suis Charlie? Non

Readers of this space know that businesses are entities used by people as intermediaries; they do things for us that we cannot do for ourselves by ourselves. But they do not exist as living entities; all actions affecting and effected by businesses impact individual human beings. “Je Suis Charlie” has it backwards; the reverse is true, at least to the extent that the speaker is a consumer, employee or owner of Charlie Hebdo.

By making Charlie Hebdo’s costs of security part of its cost of doing business, we ensure that the people who pay the costs are the same ones as those who reap the benefits from its operations – specifically, from its exercise of free speech. If the money is raised from magazine sales, then consumers are paying the freight – which means in turn that the benefits they get from the satire exceed the costs of paying to protect the authors. Alternatively, maybe a financial angel considers the artistic principle worth defending with his cash – in which case, he benefits on net balance from subsidizing the firm’s security bill.

But there is no case for forcing uninvolved parties, who may be unaware of Charlie Hebdo’s existence or who may even disapprove of its activities, to pony up tax money on the firm’s behalf.

The mere fact that it is possible to poke fun at the prophet Mohammed does not make it a sacred obligation to do so, nor is every exercise of that right defensible in economic terms. If the authors have to rely on people who do not benefit from the value created by their exercise of free-speech rights to protect them from the predictable consequences of their own actions, then they are like children who make mischief, then seek the protection of their parents.

Of course, security tight enough to withstand a terrorist onslaught is expensive. But clever, incisive satire can attract a large audience and finance the fixed costs of a secure facility. Moreover, a single wealthy donor can substitute for a large subscriber base or red-hot newsstand sales. Throughout history, patrons have subsidized the cause of art straightforwardly – now we may have reached the point where the martial arts are called upon to sustain the pacific ones.

The point, then, is that free political speech is not free in the economic sense. Free political speech is an economic product that has costs and benefits, as do all other economic goods, and is judged by their comparison.

Is Protecting Charlie Hebdo a National-Defense Obligation? 

Every introductory economics textbook informs its readers that provision of national defense if properly a function of the national government. This job cannot be profitably undertaken by private business because it is a public good. Public goods fail the test of exclusion; private businesses cannot produce them because they cannot collect the money to pay the costs of production. By producing national defense for one citizen, a private firm or firms must necessarily provide it for all, thus enabling people to refuse to pay for it once it is produced and deployed. (This type of refusal is called free riding behavior.) At any rate, that is the standard argument used to justify monopolization of national defense by government.

But that argument does not apply in this case. We are not proposing to defend an entire nation against sudden, unprovoked attack. Instead, one business has placed itself in danger through its own deliberate actions and now provision must be made for its safety. There is no prospect of free riding behavior to discourage, only the matter of how best to provide the necessary security.

Private provision is efficient in the economic sense because it encourages the business, which is in the best position to gauge the benefits and costs, to indulge in the risky behavior only if the likely benefits exceed the costs of security. It is also efficient in the practical sense, since a federal government has a bad track record in combatting terrorism and is willing to provide security to individuals only in the form of witness-security type programs. (It appears that Salman Rushdie has survived for years under this type of regime.) Local police are typically willing to provide security only to witnesses in court proceedings. Thus, private security is the obvious choice not only be default but by preference.

As a useful comparison, compare this to a situation in which (say) a newspaper prints an editorial critical of (say) North Korea, who launches a missile attack on the U.S. Now the nation is under attack without provocation by a foreign government. This is a true act of war – a legitimate exercise of the national-defense function of the federal government.

Time to Re-Start the War on Terror?

A popular response to the Charlie Hebdo assault has been to call for resumption of hostilities in the War on Terror. The U.S.’s protracted military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan had essentially wound that war to a close. As with every war, we are left holding the bag of accreted accumulations of federal-government power inflicted on the citizenry on the pretext of wartime necessity – visualize yourself standing shoeless in an airport check-in line. Now the clarion calls to arms are sounding once more.

It is axiomatic that every failure of government leads to a call for … more and bigger government. In no other sphere of human conduct is failure rewarded to reflexively and lavishly. Here, the Paris police failed miserably to protect the staff of Charlie Hebdo even though it was obvious to the world that an attack was on the cards. We have also learned that the French federal government dropped its surveillance of the presumed perpetrators. (The standard excuse of budget cuts is advanced.) So what do commentators demand? An escalation of the size and scope of government intervention, of course – as if government intervention itself were a given and we were arguing only about its nature and magnitude.

In the largest terrorist incident in recent human history, the 9/11 airline-crash-suicide assault on the World Trade Center towers in New York City, we have a case study in the relative effectiveness of government and the private sector. At the highest level of government, different agencies within the federal government had advance knowledge of the attacks (or their likelihood) but could not or would not coordinate their knowledge to prevent them. Once the attacks were underway, a military establishment massive enough to patrol the world, devastate the world with nuclear bombs and man a defensive cordon around the United States could nevertheless not stop three commercial airliners piloted by amateur foreigners from flying halfway across the U.S. and (1) twice crashing into two of the world’s tallest buildings in our most populous city, then (2) crashing into and damaging the military’s own Pentagon headquarters. By contrast, a few civilian passengers on the fourth hijacked airliner, who were completely unarmed, unwarned and untrained, nevertheless managed to overcome the armed hijackers and nearly gain control of the plane before their captors deliberately crashed it short of its target. This unorganized handful of private citizens succeeded where their multibillion-dollar military and security establishment failed – they prevented the tactical attainment of the hijackers’ goal, which was the destruction of the White House.

The history of terrorism relates one tactical success after another owing to the incompetence of government. Either the terrorists succeed or they are thwarted by their own incapability, but they are never stopped in their tracks by government. Yet with each success, promoters of the War on Terror raise the interventionist stakes by proposing ever more and greater government as the antidote.

Having lost the element of secrecy associated with the NSA phone-surveillance collation of phone conversations, government now recognizes the need to “use it or lose it.” The U.S. government will either have to prove both the safety and efficacy of NSA surveillance or see it go away. The national-security establishment cannot afford to let the Charlie Hebdo crisis go to waste; it must use it as the pretext for NSA surveillance.

Public commentators play a role formerly labeled that of “useful idiot” in the days of Communist infiltration of American society. They insist that we can no longer afford to pretend that the NSA is a threat to liberty and must now acknowledge its effectiveness as a terror-fighting tool. In fact, it has no demonstrated effectiveness whatever; it is merely assumed to be effective because government intervention is the knee-jerk, default response to all problems in the wish-fulfillment world of public commentary.

The word “irony” is hardly adequate to this occasion. If there was ever a time not to rely on NSA-type macro surveillance tools, the Charlie Hebdo case is it.

The Needle and the Haystack 

Consider the rationale behind the NSA program of surveillance. It is designed to determine which terrorists will act and when and where they will strike. To learn this information, the U.S. government monitors the aggregate phone traffic of the United States – not listening to individual conversations but merely checking ISP addresses against each other. A useful metaphor for this technique would be the needle in the haystack. In order to locate the rare terrorist event (the “needle”), the government sifts through billions of unrelated (non-terrorist) conversations (the “haystack”).

The absurdity of reliance on this technique in the Charlie Hebdo case is clear. We already possess the needle or, rather, two-thirds of it. Even before publication of the offending issue, it was a foregone conclusion that terrorists would strike against Charlie Hebdo, just as they intended to do against Salmon Rushdie, just as they did against Theo van Gogh and just as they already did against Charlie Hebdo for less provocative behavior in the past. True, we didn’t know who would attack, but knowing the target and its fixed location was more than enough. In any case, even if the identities of the culprits had been known in advance, it might not have been sufficient to forestall the attack. What was called for was an ironclad defense – either an impenetrable security perimeter to discourage an attack or force deadly enough to kill the terrorists before they reached Charlie Hebdo itself.

Refusal to deploy this security and relying instead on some sort of NSA-type surveillance to detect the threat is a ridiculous strategy. It is tantamount to possessing the needle, but hiding it in a field the size of a large county and then ordering an army of government bureaucrats wielding magnets to walk around the field until they got it back via magnetic attraction.

“Defending” Free Speech But Losing Freedom

Inefficiency in fighting terrorism is bad enough. But that is just one side of the false coin minted by rejuvenated terror warriors who call for vesting anti-terrorism powers in comprehensive surveillance by central governments. The citizenry must take it on faith that the government will not use its surveillance powers to acquire unauthorized information about law-abiding citizens and will not misuse any such information that it does acquire.

Readers will indignantly interject that safeguards are in place to prevent abuse of surveillance powers. The problem is that the same government that does the surveillance also administers the safeguards. In practice, this guarantees that the safeguards are not safe and do not guard. The actual experience of the NSA to date, based on documented testimony, proves that abuses have already occurred. Government is the locus classicus of the old saw that insanity is defined by the practice of making the same mistakes over and over again but expecting the outcome to be different.

Free markets incorporate learning from mistakes because the profit motive creates a positive feedback loop. No such mechanism exists for government – elections provide no definite corrective link between specific errors and electoral penalty and, in any case, the correction comes too late to be of any consistent value. An election is one single discrete event and there are hundreds or thousands of political decisions that require feedback from the public. Markets provide feedback on virtually every relevant decision and action; governments seldom do. Markets work; governments fail. At most, governments and the public communicate through the filter of the news media, which distorts the flow of information and the resulting decision process.

Thus, we are on the verge of losing freedom on the pretext of defending free speech.

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