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Freedom of the Press

Mises Daily: Monday, January 02, 2012 by

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Freedom of the press is one of the fundamental features of a nation of free citizens. It is one of the essential points in the political program of old classical liberalism. No one has ever succeeded in advancing any tenable objections against the reasoning of the two classical books: John Milton's Areopagitica, 1644, and John Stuart Mills's On Liberty, 1859. Unlicensed printing is the lifeblood of literature.

A free press can exist only where there is private control of the means of production. In a socialist commonwealth, where all publication facilities and printing presses are owned and operated by the government, there cannot be any question of a free press. The government alone determines who should have the time and opportunity to write and what should be printed and published. Compared with the conditions prevailing in Soviet Russia, even Tsarist Russia, retrospectively, looks like a country of a free press. When the Nazis performed their notorious book auto-da-fes, they exactly conformed to the designs of one of the great socialist authors, Cabet.[1]

As all nations are moving toward socialism, the freedom of authors is vanishing step by step. From day to day it becomes more difficult for a man to publish a book or an article, the content of which displeases the government or powerful pressure groups. The heretics are not yet "liquidated" as in Russia nor are their books burned by order of the Inquisition. Neither is there a return to the old system of censorship. The self-styled progressives have more efficient weapons at their disposal. Their foremost tool of oppression is boycotting authors, editors, publishers, booksellers, printers, advertisers, and readers.

Everybody is free to abstain from reading books, magazines, and newspapers he dislikes and to recommend to other people to shun these books, magazines, and newspapers. But it is quite another thing when some people threaten other people with serious reprisals in case they should not stop patronizing certain publications and their publishers. In many countries publishers of newspapers and magazines are frightened by the prospect of a boycott on the part of labor unions. They avoid open discussion of the issue and tacitly yield to the dictates of the union bosses.[2]

These "labor" leaders are much more touchy than were the imperial and royal majesties of bygone ages. They cannot take a joke. Their touchiness has degraded the satire, the comedy and the musical comedy of the legitimate theater and has condemned the moving pictures to sterility.

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In the ancien régime the theaters were free to produce Beaumarchais's mocking of the aristocracy and the immortal opera composed by Mozart. Under the second French empire, Offenbach's and Halevy's Grandduchess of Gerolstein parodied absolutism, militarism and court life. Napoleon III himself and some of the other European monarchs enjoyed the play that made them ridiculous. In the Victorian Age, the censor of the British theaters, the Lord Chamberlain, did not hinder the performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's musical comedies which made fun of all venerable institutions of the British system of government. Noble lords filled the boxes while on the stage the Earl of Montararat sang, "The House of Peers made no pretence to intellectual eminence."

In our day it is out of the question to parody on the stage the powers that be. No disrespectful reflection on labor unions, cooperatives, government operated enterprises, budget deficits and other features of the welfare state is tolerated. The union bosses and the bureaucrats are sacrosanct. What is left to comedy are those topics that have made the operetta and the Hollywood farce abominable.

Notes

[1] Cf. Cabet, Voyage en Icarie. Paris, 1848, p. 127.

[2] About the boycott system established by the Catholic Church, cf. P. Blanshard, American Freedom and Catholic Power, Boston, 1949, pp. 194-198.