The signature of our current debate about free speech is that it is not primarily about protecting speech from the government. Rather, it is about the “culture of free speech.” It's about intellectual openness and diversity as a cultural norm to be embraced by private individuals and private institutions.
Symposium held a recent discussion about what this culture of free speech means, and over at Discourse, I have made my own effort to define it more exactly. But in his new book, Jonathan Rauch has taken on this issue from a far broader perspective, not merely defending the culture of free speech but defining its institutional architecture and giving it a grander and more useful name: The Constitution of Knowledge.
The fundamental arguments for freedom of speech have always been epistemological, that is, relating to the basic requirements of thinking. The freedom to doubt, question, argue, and consider alternative hypotheses is necessary to discover the truth and to debunk error. Rauch describes how this gives rise to a whole implicit system governed by an unwritten constitution.
When Americans think about how we find truth amid a world full of discordant viewpoints, we usually turn to a metaphor, that of the marketplace of ideas. It is a good metaphor as far as it goes, yet woefully incomplete.... Rather, our conversations are mediated through institutions like journals and newspapers and social-media platforms; and they rely on a dense network of norms and rules, like truthfulness and fact-checking; and they depend on the expertise of professionals, like peer reviewers and editors—and the entire system rests on a foundation of values: a shared understanding that there are right and wrong ways to make knowledge. Those values and rules and institutions do for knowledge what the US Constitution does for politics: they create a governing structure, forcing social contestation onto peaceful and productive pathways. And so I call them, collectively, the Constitution of Knowledge.
The most remarkable characteristic of this system is that it is decentralized. As Rauch points out, if you asked people three hundred years ago to answer questions like, “who should control the government?” or “who should decide what's true?” the answer that would have been least obvious is: “No one in particular.” Yet that’s exactly the system we have adopted, with spectacular success.
He attributes this accomplishment to “the Big Three of modern liberalism,” John Locke, Adam Smith, and James Madison, who laid out the principles underlying “three of the great liberal social systems—economic, political, epistemic.”
Although Smith did not invent markets, he notated the code which enabled a tribal primate, wired for personal relationships in small, usually related groups, to cooperate impersonally across unbounded networks of strangers, and to do so without any central authority organizing markets and issuing commands. Economic liberalism—market cooperation—is a species-transforming piece of social software, one which enables humans to function far above our designed capacity.
Political liberalism grapples with another version of the cooperation problem: can we make rules which channel self-interest, ambition, and bias to benefit society as a whole? Can we provide social stability without squelching social dynamism, and without submitting to a Hobbesian authority? Yet another version of the cooperation problem preoccupies epistemic liberalism: Can people with sharp differences of opinion be induced to cooperate in building knowledge, again providing both stability and dynamism without recourse to authoritarianism?
Solving those problems requires a constitution, but in a broad sense of the word: not necessarily a piece of paper or a formal law, but a social operating system which seeks to elicit cooperation and resolve differences on the basis of rules, not personal authority or tribal affiliation or brute force. In that sense, the liberal economic, epistemic, and political systems all have constitutions, even if only the political constitution is written down.
Rauch’s most intriguing idea is to give James Madison credit, not just for the genius of the American political system, but for the extension of his principles into the epistemic realm, where America's constitutional system has served as an implicit model on which we have built our system for the discovery and validation of knowledge.
The heart of Rauch’s book is his exploration of this Madisonian epistemology.