Alyssa Ahlgren: A Free Society Is Never Zero Cost

We’re constantly seeing free speech attacked on college campuses, on social media, and the culture at large.

Angela Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood in front of the Bundestag Friday, November 29th to disparage the freedoms of speech and expression on the grounds of lost dignity and hatred. Merkel attempted to outline an inverse relation between a free society and freedom itself. 

Merkel stated, “Expressing an opinion does not come at zero cost. But freedom of expression has its limits. Those limits begin where hatred is spread. They begin where dignity of other people is violated.”

In her misguided passion the Chancellor makes freedom the enemy; however, her objection is not simply with freedom but the consequences that inevitably come with it. One vital mistake of her many is the statement, “Expressing an opinion does not come at zero cost.” This is correct, but it’s not required to. Nothing comes at zero cost. No exercise of liberty is uniformly a cost benefit. Someone will always do or say something that doesn’t align with another’s self-interests. Another problem with this phrase is that it’s arbitrary. A cost to me isn’t necessarily a cost to someone else, and what I view as a cost isn’t what someone else could view as a cost — collective costs included.

A society’s freedom is measured by the extent of liberty of the individual, not by love or hatred, dignity, or comfort level. The question is not how can we eliminate cost, but how do the consequences of limited freedom compare to the consequences of unencumbered freedom? Any lover of individual liberty and self-responsibility will tell you it’s not even a question — unfettered freedom minimizes cost while optimizing a free society. 

Merkel concludes her tirade with two disturbing lines, “This house will and must oppose extreme speech. Otherwise our society will no longer be the free society that it was.” Notice she shifted her verbiage to “extreme speech” not dangerous or hateful but “extreme.” Once again, the goal posts move. What is considered acceptable or fringe speech today will certainly constitute as extreme tomorrow. Arbitrary lines don’t like to stand still. 

The Chancellor’s ending line proposing that if parliament does not limit free speech society will no longer be free is especially historically tone deaf. This is coming from a woman who grew up in East Germany; you would think she would be sensitive to authoritarian regulation.

The irony of it all is that Merkel is cut by her own sword. She espouses hatred and dignity as limiting factors to free expression, yet what Angela Merkel said in front of the Bundestag can and should be considered hate speech and an attack on the dignity of the German people. Why wouldn’t it? She executed right out of the communist East German playbook and threatened to take away individual freedom in order to implement her version of a “free society.” What makes her expression of opinion the right one when she herself just uttered an opinion that did not come at a zero cost?

This anti-free speech mentality is not at all unusual in Europe as they don’t enjoy the luxury of having a First Amendment and often bow to the alter of progressivism, but that hasn’t stopped the American left from echoing the same sentiments. We’re constantly seeing free speech attacked on college campuses, on social media, and the culture at large. Democratic candidates are advocating for “hate speech” laws while platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have already adjusted their policies to encompass the vague and malleable hate speech standard as well. This has led to facts being considered taboo and offensive, science is frowned upon, and statistics are ignored. We’re even seeing violence used as a justified response to speech that is disliked.

Political leaders are audaciously and condescendingly calling for limits on free speech because quite simply, they don’t think the people can handle it. Freedom comes with consequences as well as responsibilities. We have liberty because our founders had faith in the people to uphold those responsibilities. The minute a politician tells you we need to regulate your rights, they’re saying you’re too inept to have them. 

The issue isn’t freedom, the issue is certain people not being able to handle the consequences of those they object to sharing the same rights as them. Angela Merkel won’t solve anything by limiting speech because the problem does not lie with speech. Attacking freedoms in search of answers is attempting to find solutions to problems that do not exist at the expense of us all. No nation, system, or people will ever operate in a society with zero cost. But we must ask ourselves, which costs are we willing to bear? 

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