Property Rights vs. "Freedom of Expression"
Although many conservative and libertarian commentators have vehemently criticized the various user bans imposed by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, many have also expressed at least guarded support on this controversial action by the social media giants.
Often, even those who criticize social media giants for "censorship" stop short of calling for government regulation because of a regard for private property rights.
In his 1970 book Power and Market, Murray N. Rothbard wrote, “Property rights are indissolubly also human rights.” He argued that free speech, as a human right, was constrained, not by responsible usage, but by property considerations.
Freedom of speech is supposed to mean the right of everyone to say whatever he likes. But the neglected question is: where? Where does a man have this right? He certainly does not have it on property on which he is trespassing. In short, he has this right only either on his own property or on the property of someone who has agreed, as a gift or in a rental contract, to allow him on the premises. In fact, there is no such thing as a separate ‘right to free speech’; there is only a man’s property rights: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners.
On this basis, Rothbard rejected the standard argument that free speech did not extend to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater because that right was constrained by responsibility or the possibility of dire consequences. Instead, Rothbard argued that, if the owner of the theater shouts “Fire!” he has defaulted on his contract with the patrons and so violated their property rights. If a patron shouts “Fire!”, by the same token, he has violated the property rights of the owner and the other patrons. “There is no need, therefore, of placing limits upon … the absolute nature of rights,” Rothbard wrote.
Applying this perspective to social media platforms brings a clarity that is not found is purely philosophical arguments about rights. When an individual uses Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, they are using someone else’s property. This means that the owners can dictate what content is allowable and can ban anyone they like, because their “rental contract” explicitly says so. The argument that these social media giants constitute the modern public square does not fly, either logically or legally, because the public square is by definition not private property.
At the same time, morally speaking, a social media firm retains a large amount of flexibility over just how much it ought to protect others from the effects of words used in social media forums. For example, a social media firm would not be morally obligated to manage or control public discourse by deleting or censoring “libelous” or “slanderous” content.
This is because the mere use of words in this fashion rarely constitutes a violation of property rights. In his magnum opus, Man, Economy and State, Rothbard wrote: “In a free society, as we have stated, every man is a self-owner. No man is allowed to own the body or mind of another, that being the essence of slavery. This condition completely overthrows the basis for a law of defamation…A man has no objective property as ‘reputation’. His reputation is simply what others think of him, i.e., it is purely a function of the subjective thoughts of others. But a man cannot own the minds or thoughts of others. Therefore I cannot invade a man’s property right by criticizing him publicly. Further, since I do not own others’ minds, either, I cannot force anyone to think less of the man because of my criticism.”
So even those who agree that libel, let alone offense, is not sufficient grounds for constraining free speech would still hold that the owners of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have the right to ban anyone they want from what is their property.
The controversies over social media bans, de-platforming and informal censorship, therefore, all arise from this basic question: which right is more important: property or expression? Philosophically, the libertarian answer is straightforward: since all human rights are rooted in property rights, property is more important. But this question is also an empirical one: will more negative consequences come from allowing free speech by constraining the right to private property, or from supporting property rights by allowing constraints on free speech?
History provides a clear answer. Over time, all states have tried to extend their interventions into citizens’ lives and, by so doing, limited people’s life choices. Over the same period of time, the most powerful of firms have vanished or been downgraded, to be replaced by more efficient entities. Thus, this Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube controversy, too, shall pass. It would be unwise to let their main legacy be the extension of state control over us for our own supposed good.